Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ New Directions

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 16, 2002

Our live coverage of the Distance Teaching and Learning Conference in Madison, Wisconsin continues today with a report of the "New Directions" series of speakers organized around theme of changes in teaching and learning.

Main Presenters: David Porter, Ellen Wagner, William Horton

1. New Directions in Content Development and Delivery

Topics: objectives of designers, organization, KM, reusability, ownership, collaboration, learning objects

Jill Guardia, Groove
Jim Weaver, Learning Assistamt Techmologies
Darcy Hardy, UT Telecampus
David Vogt, NewMIC

This session is trying to bring a balance between new ways ofthinking and issues that arise


Ellen Wagner, Learnativity

Perspective Setting

The statement: "Innovations in content creation, management and distribution are changing the direction of today's learning design practice." It's not an issue related to software; it addresses the kind of thinking designers have to do.

For example, look at some learning models:

  • Behaviourism - response followed by a reinforcer is strengthened. But this is not sufficient.
  • Social Learning Theory - learning occurs when you observe the behaviour of others. But the learning is sometimes not desired as social behaviour extends beyond the topic at hand.
  • Cognition / Information Processing - learning results in an objective, organized body of knowledge, relates new information to previously known information. But it assumes that there is a right answer, one way of knowing.
  • Constructivism - learning is a willed and conscious activity, a process of meaning-making.

What's Changed?

  • ubiquitous connectivity - "I keep hearing beeps in this room" - connection on call, at will changes the student/teacher dynamic into something much more interactive
  • (reusable, interoperable) learning objects - the fact that we can talk of content as a commodity causes us to think differently about content
  • rich internet applications - we're not there yet: airline reservation systems, for example, are too awkward.
  • peer-to-peer networking - means that we can avoid being managed by a central server or repository

What this Means

New tools, platforms and applications give users power to create, share and distribute our ideas and content. There are new opportunities for collaboration. Our level of interaction, our potential for interaction, is unprecedented. And this new level of interaction creates new outcomes (we need to look beyond the transaction).

Additionally, our views around learning are broadening. We are able take multiple perspectives and blend our theoretical bases. We can include, for example, constructive practice in cognitive models. This practice allows us to define learning as an activity, shared problem solving, shared meaning making. In other words, collaboration. This changes the nature of intruction: it allows us to be partners with our learners.

So learning designers need to think much more broadly about what we can do to support real-time collaboration as a part of a learning strategy.


Jill Guardia, Groove

Why Ray Ozzie blogs: because there are many dimensions to human activity. We pick our tools to match our activity. Messaging, email, asynchronous discussion, voice mail, spreadsheet, a napkin or the back of an envelope....

The design engineers of Groove have tried to create that rich environment.A personal environment without a lot of networks, wires, etc. Groove is peer-to-peer based, not client-server. In Groove, you are looking at sharing ownership of content. Roles are also shared, the role of the learner, the role of the teacher.

Groove is a rich environment that allows you to create a space for learning. You are looking at bringing traditional instruction more into knowledge management or knowledge sharing. It also is a great tool for team-based learning. Groove also displays "presence indicators" that lets people know when others are performing activities (such as typing a message). Different tabs in Grrove represent different tools: outliner, calendar, shared browser, Q&A, project manager, whiteboard, and more. For programs like Word or PowerPoint there is a co-editing capability.


Bringing Consumer Values to the Learning Ecosystem

David Porter: People are afraid that institutions like the University of Phoenix are redefining learning, but really they are only bringing consumer values into the mix. Things like Napster and eBay give us good models. What would a LearnSter application look like?

100 million people use software, but we don't see 100 million people using learning software. So there must be something in the P2P metaphor that informs online learning.

What are the key drivers in learning?

  • customer priorities shaping products and sevrices
  • diminishing tech barriers
  • consolidation, alliances and consortia
  • And the importance of brand

John Seely Brown's "The Social Life of Information" talks about changing student demographics. Diana Oblinger talked about this yesterday.

So what would a "Learnster" valued chain look like? We get different pictures for individuals as opposed to institutions. (I cannot read this slide) You want to have financial transaction systems that make it easy for students to assemble courses, programs and degrees.

What we are looking at is a networked services model. Different actors in the system, located in different places, can transact through common systems and common tools.

We need to do a better job of engaging customer values. Tools like Napster build community, break down barriers, are viral, are very scalable, and they disintermediate. The other lesson from the web is what people want: they want to try before they buy, buy by the piece, mix and match, share, repurpose and publish. This may apply to students and bloggers, but they also apply to teachers.

--------------------- Jim Weaver, Learning Assistamt Techmologies

The Possibility Network

Consists of:

  • A corps of learning consultants
  • A network of learning stores
  • A personal learning assistant

The Personal Learning Assistant

Kind of a Quicken for learning. It is owned by a student, not an institution, and lets a student access various institutions. It is portable and personal, within the student's control.

The PLA allows students to create a personal learning profile and to browse through course catalogues, explore degree programs, do research, take self-assessments, and access formal and informal learning plans. Within "my profile" a student can engage in "self-discovery" activities, such as assessments. In the learning plan, students can apply to a school online, browse catalogues, and look for what they want.

Based on the student's input parameters - availablility, for example, or learning preferences - the course opportunities are displayed. They can then use a course registration assistant and actually sign up for the course. The PLA doesn't care what system the institution uses, be it PeopleSoft or whatever. The PLA then gives the students a means to pay for the course.

Another screen allows the student to interact with their degree program in an SIS-independent way. It gives them an overview and another route for course registration. This display filters by their preferences and by the courses required to fill that program. Part of the plan in Indianana is to build articulation into the system, so they can select courses from any of the institutions, not only the institution into which they are enrolled.

The PLA is a Java application installed via a CD. But they are creating a web front-end to this called a Uportal to make it easier for students to use.

Technologies used include:

Companion Utilities

  • Corporate Learning Assistant
  • Personal learning strategy designer

The personal learning strategy designer will incorporate a personal mentor that fives the student structured access to the world's knowledge resources. The utility will allow the student to create a learning program around them. They will have a subject taxonomy viewer (in a nice graphical format, a lot like The Brain). The idea is to access a metadata repository that knows about all the learning objects in the world filtered by learner preferences. Then the student can drag the learning objects into the structure. This structure can be created using standard pedagogy models; learning objects can be tagged to indicate pedagory, allowing another layer of filtering.

The arcfhitecture is a mixture of client-server and peer-to-peer. Each peer in the network has their own sharable content objects (SCOs). They can also access SCOs from other peers in the network. Users make requests of the metadata registries.

How is this possible? We benefit from a misture of wide connectivity to the internet, the proliferation of computing devlices, the creation of SCOs and learning object repositories, and the software modelling of learning theory.

The PLA, tools and more information is available from

Question: people need dialogue and interaction to ask the right questions. Answer: the intelligent tutoring system might help. Also, we want not only a PLA but also a perosnal learning companion. Knowledge Pool, for example, provides networks of mentors.

We want to distinguish between learning that responds to algorithms and learning that responds to heuristics - and environment rather than a plan.

I asked about what aspects of the system are distributed, because it seems to me there should not be a single metadata registry, not a single taxonomy. And in response, it seems clear that there won't be one registry, simply because of the massive number of SCOs. The distributed metadata registory would consists of one node per taxonomy entry.

I also asked about the collision between this type of system and the structure of LMS and LCMS systems as are currently deployed. Bill Horton noted that you can't take people from a producer economy to a consumer economy without some traumas.David Porter suggested that we consistently undersell the intelligence of the user. Learners, especially adult learners, are well verse in what they want to do. We wanted to give them a tool that strips away the patronizing aspects of learning online. It won't take very long online before learners can educate themselves.

An audience member commented that learners have always been able to teach themselves. Also, learners live in a space. They have people around them. they can ask questions if they need advice.


3. New Directions in Content Development

William Horton

What is reusable learning content? Not just data files: it also includes lessons via computers and network, as well as activities in which there are people involved.

Now there are some questions that need answering:

  • What should be reused? What should never be reused?
  • What are social barriers to reuse?
  • What would convince you to reuse someone else's content?
  • Yeah, but what's really going to be reused?
  • Who owns reusable learning objects?
  • Do we need new employment contracts?
  • Who is liable?
  • You mean I need to get permission to use Dilbert cartoons?
  • What new technology do learners need? Do developers need?
  • What technical problems remain?
  • Are we just chasing rainbows?
  • Who do you need on your team?
  • Why don't people involved in online information, training and learning talk to each other?
  • Who gets the credit, tenure and money for creating reusable objects? for reusing them?
  • What is a school?
  • What questions are we not asking?


Darcy Hardy, UT Telecampus

Intellectual Property Issues - Who Owns What IP issues for courses is a job in itself. If you drill down, both faculty and the university have rights to the intellectual property - the university because you are using university resources to develop the resource. Universities used to look the other way, but it has changed a lot with technology.

When you talk about learning objects, it's a lot like when we first put courses online. Only 5 percent actually made money, but 95 percent thought they were going to makle money. But we need to be clear they're not going to retire on this. We have to ask, will somebody really buy this? Or is it better to just share?

This leads to the social barriers. What would lead people to reuse. There's a lot of "Not Invented Here" syndrome. They think, if it didn't come from my R1 campus, it can't possibly be good.

Finally, who is going to produce learning objects? I have met with publishers who ask me, what should we do with content? Every time, it is recommended that what you need to do is put your content into learning object format. Don't nickle-and-dime people, just lease the whole library. Do make it difficult for the faculty member to use it.

William Horton: faculty reuse is a major barrier. How do we do it? Are trhere strategies that are working? One audience member pointed out that he reuses traditional things, but he always wants to revise it. That's easy to do with text, but the more sophisticated it is, the harder it is to do. So, said Horton, the very self-containedness is the barrier.

David Porter said the best resources are like a Betty croker cake mix; it allows you to add ingredients. Ellen Wagner mentioned, with respect to MERLOT, that faculty submit objects that downloaders can change. But an audience commented that the number one problem is that faculty members cannot make changes unless they have permission from the author.

Professors always use books, said another member, and I don't see a big difference here. I consider learning objects to be the egg or the spice in the cake mix. But if they can't tweak it some, came the reply, they won't use it.

Part of the issue, said another commentator, is quality. If you use a book or a journal quality has been checked. That's why MERLOT is so great, rejoined Darcy hardy, because objects are peer reviewed. But, asked David Porter, aren't you as the faculty member the primary reviewer? yes, but there is an issue of volume.

"Who cares whether professors use learning objects?" I asked. The question is whether students use learning objects. Another participant talked about sign language (ASL) objects where the users could be anyonew. "I don't quite see our type of learning object related to your list," she said. See paper # 57 - taxonomy from Wiley.

Rory McGreal, from the far end of the room, commented that kids use learning objects like Coles Notes, and that teachers no longer have control. They are finding learning objects that teach better than you, whether you use them or not.

McGreal also pointed that copyright law was brought about to disseminate knowledge. But every move recently has been to protect the right of authors. But we have to stop this. "It's very scary." But the real scarely part is that nobody is going to pay attention to it anyways; you will have a whole slew of lawbreakers. "I think that this is really dangerous; it's not going to work. We could all have ebooks here today but they're being held back by publishers."

Textbooks are two or three years old before they come out, said another delegate, so we are using WSJ. And Horton chimed in that we use no textbook; teaching with a textbook made no sense, because they're out of date. people need to learn to find their own material. But how do people filter material? Who vets? And, as another participant commented, publishers keep churning new editions every few years even though "not very much in colege algebra has changed." But Dover publishers does a great service by republishing out of print books very cheaply.

Horton decided to take issue with McGreal's comments as a person who makes a living as an author - don't I deserve to be compensated? It (the recent law) is a move to protect publishers, not authors. Are there going to be new mechanisms to compensate authors? Now if I self publish I don't have to sell as many because I get 100% royalties.But you may run into something like Napster, said a delegate. You may have to find other ways to make a living.

It's a red herring, I argued, saying we must compensate authors. Content is of diminishing value; we can only keep royalties up by creating artificial shortages. But if people are not paid, said Horton, they won't create content. We have to be concerned that we are funding through grants, profits, etc. We can't just so, go out and get another job. We should leverage money for the production of content.

But I, said Hardy, am still trying to find a way to provide support at the institutional level. I hate when it gets into "how much money are we going to make?" But there's so much we could do to support the creation of LOs internally, program support, for example, to take that idea in their head and bring it to life. We need a lot of these learning objects, and we should talk about that rather than the economics of it.

Why isn't the open software model a good thing to contemplate, asked a delegate. There is a market for many softwrae products. Why can't that work for learning objects. It seems so logical, said Horton. You get your source code but then you can add to it. Are people doing this? I don't think so. Yeah, well it's just like courses, said another person. Everybody thought they would make a million dollars and they were so worried about it. But it never happened. "We're getting all hung up on the wrong thing."

Let's change the pricing schedules, said someone else. To download one sample song for my CD was $77 for a single download. If I wanted to distribute it it would cost more money. The pricing was ridiculous. That's a barrier; if you use 5 or 6 of these it will be very expensive to create. Remember when Adobe charged $99 for their reader, asked Horton. "That didn't go over well at all. The market has to work itself out."

----------------------- 4. New Directions in the Elaboration of Learning Environments

David Porter: The Common Content Problems

  • Apps and desktop tools for creating objects
  • legacy content conversion
  • Content delivery and learning management etc.
  • LMSs are failing because they are not user manageable - it takes a team of engineers.

  • Also, there is the question of how to place tacit knowledge in proximity with structured knowledge (see my Syndicated Learning).
  • Also, how do we do DRM - Mojo nation using a system of credits
  • How do we deal with copyright, royalties, invoicing and payment?
But there's a whole other area of investigation around the user experience, not only in the learning situation but at home and at play.

------------------------ David Vogt, NewMIC

Where is Learning's Copernicus?

Right now our learning cosmology has been focussing on perfecting a model that doesn't have the learner at the center. It is a model based on curriculum and governed by authority. But there is an opportunity now to create a whole new cosmology that is learner centered and governed by the physics of experience rather than by institutions that we know so well.

This doesn't change the landscape. Rather, it is a change in perspective. Everything is there, but it is the new point of view that allows changes and opportunities to gradually develop.

Observational Trends

  • There is a convergence of learning sciences, cognitive sciences, and human factors engineering in the first generation of learning technologies.
  • The dynamics of person-centered (flat) online social hierarchies such as P2P systems - it allows for an engagement of individuals on a more flexible and continuing basis
  • The blending of materials and locations to meet the learner's needs of the moment
  • The blending or blurring of "working" and "learning" - if we continue to perfect a cosmology without taking this into account it will be challenged in the long run
  • Re-credentialing has created a need for lifelong learning

Evolutionary Trends

  • From 'just in case' to 'just in time' learning
  • From a job-centered world to a protfolio of work
  • from authority based to experiental based learning management
  • From hierarchal knowledge to heuristic knowledge

NewMIC is looking at these trends in a variety of areas:

  • Rich media sharing, in collaboration with Sony
  • Interactive games, with Electronic Arts (EA) - imagine the potential for learning
  • Wireless Mibility, with Sierra Wireless
  • E-Lifestyles, with Telus (a Canadian phone company) - how can we analyze the domains of human experience to understand the impact of technologies
  • Network Infrastructure, with Nortel
  • Advanced Collaborative Environments, with the National Reserach Council - the technology has not really progressed beyond talking heads for the last 20 years (he says, speaking as a talking head over interactive television)

The fundamental question is, what will people want from their experience with all these technologies? We haven't kept our research up on how people want to exist. We don't have a model that tells us how to develop technologies in a useful way.


Bill Horton asked what sort of systems and what sort of people will most benefit from the new collaborative technologies. Vogt replied that collaborative technologies cannot be looked at on their own. It would be better if this online experience were blended with other forms of connectivity. We need to create the right combinations of different experiences.

Another delegate asked how we could extend this environment - are there environments that are like conferences. And of course, as Vogt pointed out, there are - some of which were discussed in your session already, such as Groove. What we have here (ITV) is one of the lowest forms of interaction, though perhaps appropriate for the forum today. The tools are much richer than that, but understanding how to do it is the key.

Another commentator suggested that people want as much variety they can get. Is your research, she asked, going to explore how people actually use this mix? Most of the research at NewMIC is dedicated toward that, said Vogt, though it has largely been ignored elsewhere.

The key at Open University was that it was very much an authority based dissemination process, so no matter how the material is delivered it still feels the same to the user.

Another question looked at how new technology establishes limits in what we can experience. According to Vogt, when you look at different cultural cosmologies, they capture so much of their experienc eof the world that is so personalized to them that, even though we can experience the richness of the system, we miss much of it. We have at hand technologies, but we haven't really explored how this richness can be captured, spread and disseminated. Can the vending machine model of learning capture this? We need a very blended approach of what learning is.

Can you run a scenario where learning centered, learning objects and blended learning converge? It comes back to looking at how you are governing your lifestyles. How much time do you spend at home, on the road, in different environments. You yourself create a blend for your experience. More and more you have an autonomy in how you create that blend. And you probably appreciate that, turning off their cell phones, say. But others stay online constantly. So, look at, when do use objects? To read a newspaper, watch a television show. Distributed modes may be more comfortable at home, in the office, or the class. The key is versitility, economy, and fitting the lifestyle you are looking for rather than things like the availability of classroom, whether the phone has service here, whether the kids are screaming in the background.


So where does this leave us?

It is perhaps a bit telling that only a small percentage of the conference participants attended this workshop, and even that attendance dwindled through the day as the issues got harder. Though the general tenor of the presentations was that there is, if not a revolution, at least an evolution happening online. But for many people today, this phenomenon is but a distance rumble, a conversation that is taking place in the room off to the side, while the rest of them work on their courses and their classes and their programs.

The titles of the sessions opposite this forum are illustrative. Many of them talk about "teaching" using this or that technology. Some of them look at "systems of instruction." A few even consider the topic of "streaming audio/visual lectures." The old ways linger, and even in a field like distance education, there is a great deal of traditionalism, a great deal of what today was discribed as institution centered, autrhoritarian thinking.

I griped a lot about the lack of online registration for this conference. And I complained frequently about the lack of wireless ethernet - opr any ether net here. The four email stations available today weren't enough, I argued, for the thousand attendees. And yet the lineups remained short, and the general atmosphere was one of contentment with the way things are. People are still more concerned about content and delivery. Don't give me the economic issues: tell me how I can be a better teacher.

And yet - what I saw today with peer to peer technologiues such as Groove, personal learning assistants, and even learning objects (however conceived) is the beginning of the end for the centralized model of instruction. When I ask how LCMSs and how copy protection and encrypted ebooks can compete against an open and accessible learning environment, as was envisioned here, the answer is, they can't. In not more than 24 months the nature of instructional technology will be turned upside down. LMS vendors will be claiming that their product can tap in to the learning object network. There will be seminars about self-publishing and distributing learning objects. Publishers will be in retreat, asking how we can stem the tide of "crappy content." Regulations will be proposed. But the most important element of all, the learners, will ignore them.

Who, asks Vogt, is the Copernicus of learning? We are.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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