Another attempt at Flexible Provision of courses

Our friends from the Open University of the Netherlands (OUNL) have just had published a very interesting article that seems to be a first step towards helping education and training institutions re purpose their content for multiple audiences.  This is an important, yet very challenging task that requires that courses be created without a single audience in mind. Besides the targeting and language challenges of multiple audiences, the technical challenges are also many and this paper presents a possible  solution.

Just to back up a bit, you may remember the excitement of educational Modeling Languages which evolved into IMS Learning Design. The promise of these efforts was to provide specifications and tools that allowed instructional sequences to be formally described and tagged, thus setting the stage for repurposing, search filter etc.  I was particularly enamoured with the idea that Learning Design would do for education what standard notation from the 11 century did for music. I experimented with some hand coding of content. But the standard had too major problems, notably  lack of markup tools and runtime engines and a very fine level of granularity that required far too much effort to code.  This effort was led by Rob Koper from UNL. Continue reading

Differences between students using PLE and LMS systems

I don’t usually comment on articles in “closed” journals, but making an exception in this case. I hope you can find it in a library data base, or one of the authors uploads it to a public site or you can “rent ” it from Wiley for 48 hours for $6! The article:

Casquero, O., Ovelar, R., Romo, J., & Benito, M. (2015). Reviewing the differences in size, composition and structure between the personal networks of high- and low-performing students. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(1), 16-31.

This is one of the few studies that use a quasi-experimental design to measure differences in network formation and structure between low and high achievers in two types of online learning contexts. The first context was based on traditional LMS (Moodle) activities and design with the the usual content display and threaded discussions.  The second used a variety of tools including iGoogle, Google Groups and FriendFeed and an array of  digital resource repositories such as Delicious, Flickr, YouTube, Scribd and SlideShare. The instructor and learning activities were the same in both contexts. Coincidently, this second model is similar to my own courses in which I use the LMS for grade management and some static content display. However, unlike the mix of tools used in this PLE, I use our in-house Elgg environment (Athabasca Landing) which enhances privacy and student control of data.

As has been found in very much studies of interaction in formal courses,  the students who are most active (highest participation levels), score higher marks. This correlation is often used by researchers to justify their interaction interventions. However, as always correlation doesn’t imply causation. Involved, motivated students always both participate and score higher than those who don’t – no matter what learning activities are designed.

In this study  social network analysis tools were used to measure the individual networks developed as evidenced by comments and contributions. As expected higher performing students had more highly developed, denser and more extensive  social networks – again demonstrating motivation and participation. However, more interesting was that the PLE students interacted more and also built more expensive personal networks. The authors note:

 in public spaces, such as open forums, all the individuals are equally exposed and equally positioned to access the information flow. As a result, the present study demonstrates that when public spaces based on indirect interactions are set up in online courses, students’ selection procedures for interaction are not focused on the individuals, but rather on those shared resources and the will to collaborate

Obviously, the information flow in Moodle forums can be rich, but the more extensive opportunities to contribute, and as importantly to browse and consume information produced by others, increases with heterogeneity and richness of sources of that flow.

One problem in this and other networking studies is the sample selection. As in far too many studies of online learning, in this study the 120 participants were all taking a course on Networking and Web 2.0. I have never seen data on how many online research studies use students studying some component of online learning as the subject matter.  This is sort of like studying people’s reaction to smoking indoors, but only reporting the attitudes of smokers.

In any case this is an interesting study and provides further evidence for expanding the learning contexts beyond the confines of a teacher constructed LMS. Network growth, social capital accumulation, transparency, persistence and network literacy are all enhanced when these ‘connectivist’ learning outcomes are aimed for, and instantiated in a course that grows beyond the LMS.

Unitarian Chalice Wheel

In this post I “show off” the carving I had commissioned from I Ketut Weda, a local woodcarver in Ubud, Bali.  Unitarians are proud to both recognize and acknowledge the many spiritual paths followed by other Unitarians and by other citizens of this planet.

The carving has it’s centre a flaming chalice. The chalice is the most common Unitarian Universalist symbol. The chalice or cup represents nurturing and support, the flame represents the energy and contribution of light to social justice and learning.  Around the circle are 8 symbols of the the world’s most well known religious movements.

Westwood Unitarian Chalice Wheel

The 8 symbols on the  Chalice Wheel Represent (clockwise from top)

  1. Jewish Star of David
  2. Christian Cross
  3. Islam Star and Crescent Moon
  4. Hindu Om/Aum
  5. Buddhist Dharma Wheel
  6. Pagan Pentagram Star
  7. Taoist Ying/Yang
  8. Aboriginal Medicine Wheel

The carving below now hangs in the Westwood Unitarian Congregation in Edmonton and of course you are invited to come and see it and to join us on any Sunday morning!


Is Blogging worth it for the aspiring academic?

After spending most of yesterday catching up on blogs, Facebook posts, twitter and linked in, I began to wonder if it was worth it and how I would I would measure the value (in academic terms) of my day. First of all I should note that the day was a pleasant one, with a few good articles uncovered, a joke or three, time wasted trying to find closed articles mentioned in open repositories, a few new slides for upcoming keynotes, updates on a number of colleagues, some interesting conference to keep in mind and a great of peripheral knowledge that I have no idea if it will ever have any use.  But was it worth it??

Like most academics, I’m evaluated annually based on three expectations:

1. publishing peer reviewed articles – how many depends on the discipline and the institution, but a quick scan of my CV shows 53 articles in 11 years or more than 4 a year.  Throwing book chapters and full books in adds more brownie points.

2. Teaching – At Athabasca in our graduate program the normal load is only 3 semester courses per year, so I get off quite lightly. We do however have many MEd and EdD students to supervise.  The quality of the courses and my teaching is not assessed very rigorously- as long as there are no students pounding on the Dean’s door.

‘3. Service – a large number of activities falls under this criteria, but certainly suffering through administrative and academic committees meetings within the university counts as well as public service activities. Fortunately at Athabasca, most meetings in our “distributed workplace” are help online or on telephone, so I shameless multi-tasked through many meetings.

The relative weight of each of these three is both arguable and varies at different institutions. But most Canadian universities seem to be weighted around 40/40/20%.

Now how did my net activities relate to these measurable outcomes?  Certainly one can make a note in one’s annual report about how many blog posts you have posted, how many Twitter followers you have engaged and if your how many hits on your presentations in Slideshare or YouTube – but these don’t count for much in themselves. And worse, they may be seen by faculty evaluation committees (especially those members who do not have a significant Net presence) as a waste of academic time.

I did bump into articles that were recommended on Twitter – I think for three of them I downloaded the citation into my reference manager- hopefully for appearance in future articles. Thus, some potential benefit to my publishing work for this year. I also tweeted and blogged, and copied the URLs into a research course that I am continuously updating -teaching work. And finally  my tweets and posts are bringing some limited fame and acknowledgement to Athabasca University and the Centre for Distance Education where I work- public service.  But pretty hard to make direct measurements of these activities on the ‘big three’ listed above.

Finally I had an interesting discussion with a colleague yesterday, musing about this issue and heard the very familiar complaint that he can hardly keep up with email and just doesn’t have time or interest in more net activities – reading or writing. Unless of course, he gets a filtered recommendation on something from myself or other colleagues.

So, today I wondering how the question of how much effect does Net presence and activity have on academic careers could be empirically resolved. Of course, it isn’t very likely that a control group, longitudinal  experiment could be done, so one would likely have to settled for correlational data. But what data counts – Number of posts? number of followers? Number of “retweets”? and what would be the dependent variables- time to promotion to tenure and/or full professor, number of keynote and invited presentations?, number of articles pushed? number of citations or H-index from Google Scholar?  Probably the H-index would be easiest, but there are many questions about Google Scholar- none of which are resolved by the lack of transparency in the way items get counted.i

I can certainly think of super star academics (- in our field George Siemens, Grainne Conole, Tony Bates, Steve Wheeler and dana boyd come mind) who have good academic ratings and are very active on a number of platforms. But I can think of an equal number of strong academics (Randy Garrison, Manuel Castells, Michael Moore and Phil Abrami)  who to my knowledge have no or very limited net presence. Looking at the names I’ve listed I see there MAY be a small correlation with age, but certainly there are many exceptions.

So let me throw this out to researchers on the net. How do you measure the value of net presence on academic career success?

Hmmm, I wonder what the academic value of this musing has been.



Why you should do design based research (DBR)

In this post I’ll review and respond to two useful posts by Rebecca Hogue – Why you shouldn’t do Educational Design Research Part 1  and Part 2.

First of all I think the title is quite misleading, in that my reading of it provides amble reasons for doing DBR, in line with the literature. Perhaps I should allow a bit more literally license, but I expected the posts to be attacks on DBR itself as a mythology for doctoral student research. However, the series does highlight contexts and understandings which are inconsistent with DBR and thus is of significant value.


My second problem, is that Rebecca urges the readers to first read her article:

Hogue, R. J. (2013). Epistemological Foundations of Educational Design Research. Paper presented at the World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education.

Unfortunately, she only provides the link to the article in the EdIT database, which charges for access. I was able to access it through my University, but I urge Rebecca and others to NOT submit her work to closed sources (if possible) and to post the article in open fashion if you must give copyright away. Let the copyright police get after you. The worst that can happen is a cease and desist order, unless the copy owner can proof significant economic loss from the infringement.

The first post notes the underlying epistemology of the DBR research paradigm. Pragmatism  supports and defines DBR, action research, many “mixed methods designs” and some types of grounded theory. In the post, Rebecca does a great job of explaining the differences in research design, research questions and methodologies that do not create a ‘mismatch’, with the overarching research paradigm. She gives a good example of why students interested in the nature, phenomena or experience of learning, should be using interpretive paradigms and not pragmatic. One can easily provide additional examples of valid research questions that really are only a match with positivist or critical research paradigms.  Both her article and this post provide amble evidence for the particular epistemological underpinnings (Pragmatism) that are associated and she argues, and I agree, are  required of a DBR research project.

She goes on talk about the output of a “design” as itself being a valid research output. I also agree, but always urge my DBR students (from my own pragmatic world-view) to provide emperical evidence (qualitative and quantitive) that their design has or has not worked – that is as important a contribution to the research as is the design.

The second post is more “pragmatic” and gives 3 potential “show stoppers” which can derail a DBR research thesis.

The first deals with time and notes that a dissertation takes time and the problem should still be around when committee, ethics and a zillion other delays have been surmounted. I would add the converse, that DBR studies almost always involve multiple iterations. This is fine for an established academic to build a research agenda upon, but is nearly impossible for a DBR student who wants to graduate with the decade they begin!!  In science a PhD student can often do a small piece of a research agenda being enacted within their supervisor’s “lab”. Unfortunately, in education due to funding problems and lack of clear and concrete identification and action on particular problems, doctoral students often have to create and define their own research problem and context.

Jan Herrington et al have addressed this issue in more detail see:

Herrington, J., McKenney, S., Reeves, T., & Oliver, R. (2007). Design-based research and doctoral students: Guidelines for preparing a dissertation proposal. Paper presented at the Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications, Vancouver. Retrieved from

As an aside, note how the above article was published and likely owned by EdIT but there are 5 other versions (including the uRL above) of the article (mostly in University databases) available.

A final constraint that I would as is that the intervention must be feasible and cost effective. If one is designing for example a mobile app, one needs the resources to actually create a compelling app that likely needs to run on multiple operating systems. Without resources and time, the design may fail, not because it isn’t an effective design, just that it can’t be built within the contexts of the environment in which it is designed to operate. DBR is pragmatic in more than just the epistemological sense of the word.


New report on Emotional Presence in online education

I awoke to a new report this morning Measuring and Understanding Learner Emotions: Evidence and Prospects. The report is the first paper from the Learning Analytics Community Exchange which is a 2.5 year  EU funded project focused on learning analytics and data mining for educational use. I must say I was delightfully surprised to see the first output from a group using data analytics to focus on emotions!  Bart Rienties and Bethany Alden Rivers from the Open University in the UK have done an excellent job of reviewing work in this important area and developing a conceptual model for its further development.

Of course I was pleased to see that they built on the now venerable Community of Inquiry model developed over 15 years ago by Randy Garrison, Walter Archer and myself. I was equally pleased to see the enhancement of our model to include Emotional Presences as first argued by my colleague and Director of our Centre for Distance Education, Marti Cleveland-Innes.  Marti had asked me years ago why we didn’t include emotional presence in our original model. I rather glibly replied that the COI model was developed by 3 men from southern Alberta (Canada’s cowboy country) and that REAL men in our limited world didn’t do emotions!! More rationally, I argued that emotional presence was subsumed both theoretically and empirically by a number of the indicators of  social presence that we had described in the initial model. However, these arguments  didn’t preclude her continuing arguments and this paper shows she is not alone.

Rienties and Rivers add the emotional circle to our original Venn diagram as below.

expanded COI Model

The 28 page report then goes on to briefly review types of research techniques that have been used to define and measure emotional presence. The same challenge we undertook using transcript analysis of educational computer conferences  to validate the original model. The research methods covered include three established research methodologies:

  • content analysis
  • natural language processing
  • identification of behavioural indicators

and four others that the authors describe as using “new data” as opposed to “existing data”. I can’t really understand the difference either conceptually or methodologically, except I guess to suggest that the later methods require generation of original data for research purposes.

  • quantitative instruments
  • offline interviews and purposeful online conversations
  • wellbeing word clouds
  • intelligent tutoring systems

In any case the paper reviews and provides nice table summaries of studies done using each method.

This work is a treasure trove for researchers looking for both new methods and an expanded (yet time proven) conceptual model to guide research in online and blended learning.

One of the values of the original COI model was its simplicity. Peter Shea and his colleagues have argued for a “Learning presence” which takes into account the learners self-efficacy, confidence and capability to learn.  While not denying the value of “learner presence” it takes the model into psychological realms that our more sociological orientation had avoided in the initial formation.  Adding any additional presences, adds complexity and besides the aesthetic value of a simpler, three circle Venn diagram, Occam’s Razor calls for simplicity of explanation whenever possible.  So can learning in educational contexts be adequately described and measures without reference to emotions? I think it can, but this review convinced me that something is lost when the emotional aspect of human experience in education is ignored.

Given the application of the model to formal education, I was surprised to not see a bit more emphasis on teacher emotion. I know from my own experience, the emotional challenges that I deal with when teaching either online or in a classroom.In any case, this review is not the last word, but a great starting point for further research in “emotional presence”.


Great Firewall of China

I’m on research and study leave (aka Sabbatical) this year and I see that I have been ignoring my blog as well as a number of other “normal responsibilities”. But I have been learning and enjoying. After a 6 week road trip through Eastern Canada and the USA, my wife Susan and I  are just ending a 4 week visit to China.

Our VERY gracious hosts for this trip have been the faculty and students in Distance Education and Educational Technology at Beijing Normal University. Education universities here in China still use (in English) the rather old fashioned term “Normal University” – (not implying that other universities are not normal, nor that the education ones are more normal in the modern sense of the word). Beijing Normal University BNU was founded in 1902 and is China’s 2nd oldest and one of the 3 or 4 most highly respected Universities in China.

I was charged withdoing lectures in 6 classes for PhD and Masters students, 2 lectures for Faculty and students and along the way, accepted invitations to talk at 3 other Universities. In addition I was asked to do a literature review on Interaction in Online Learning. Given the overwhelming interest in various types and modes of interaction in online education in the literature and in my own career, I didn’t think this should be too great a problem. With the help of a grad student from Canada, we did Google Scholar searches for the 10 most cited articles in each of the past 10 years, that included the words Interaction and “distance education” or “online education” or elearning in the title. We then began classifying them by types of interaction (student-student, student content etc.), methodology, context and tried to get a sense of results of recent scholarship. To increase efficiency we stored our spreadsheet of results and first outlines of the paper on DropBox.

Well, major surprises when I attempt to to continue the work in China.  I had heard that some Google services weren’t available, so I changed my browsers to use Microsoft Bing for searches -which worked OK, but much less coverage from Google Search). But I began to realize how Gogglized my life had become. Fortunately Google Mail works most of the time, but Google Scholar was also disabled along with Maps, Image search, Google Books, Google Earth, YouTube and most everything else Google that I use.  Wikipedia lists 2,701 banned sites but I am told that sites come and go with irregular frequency and certainly no accountability. I was particularly sad to loose Google Scholar because I have it set to let me access all of the full text works from closed works that are not available on the Internet but are available to folks like myself with university access to a number of journal databases. I am able to logon to my university library account directly, but when this hotel internet, (shared with MANY University offices) gets used during daylight hours, Internet speed gets VERY slow.

I knew that Google and the Chinese government had a major dustup, but I was surprised to see how many other services were blocked. no Twitter, no Slideshare, No DropBox, No FaceBook,  and likely a number of other services. For the first week, I couldn’t access but now it is available – perhaps the Chinese Government  has gotten over the outrageous behariour of either our Prime Minsiter or Jian Ghomeshi, even if I haven’t!)

I also came to realize how Googlized other aspects of my life have become. As Editor Erimitus of IRRODL.COM, I was very surprised to find that this open access journal is basically unusable here in China. We had installed an automatic translator app, in large part becuase of the growing interest in China and many other developing countries in distance education research. But I had forgotten that it used Google Translate (banned). Further investigation found that we used Google analytics, google API’s that are built into the Open Journal System we use and one other Google service – on each page view!  As result the IRRODL site works SLOWLY, one has to wait while it calls and eventually times out on 4 different calls to banned services, making it functionally useless. sigh…

Most of new Chinese friends are aware of the problem, but have a number of standard responses. First, the blocked services have invigorated a number of Chinese social networks and commercial services. Many of these web services such as wechatRenrenDouban  and Jiepang  have millions of users (they have achieved critical mass) and arguably are as good or better than English language services. Secondly most academics use their library databases and seem quite resigned (no protests in the streets here) to doing without some of the systems that have become part of my personal learning network. Finally, there are MANY services which provide services for $5-10 month. I asked a friend if they were not worried that the government would come down on them for bypassing their control systems. He was quite confident that the government didn’t mind, as they were doubtlessly monitoring his VPN access and getting the potential miscreants using fewer services makes their monitoring job easier!

So, it has a been a great visit to China. We’ve seen many of the top tourist sites, squeezed into quite a few over crowded buses, subways and elevators and had many conversations with fascinating students, academics and ordinary Chinese- well at least those who speak English.

I can understand the Chinese motivation to get out of the domination of new media by Western (and mostly USA) services. We’ve been struggling with that in Canada for decades. But heavy handed blocking seems to make academics compete in research endeavours with one English language arm tied behind their back!

Virtual Barn Raising for OERs

The email below resonated with on a number of levels. I spent 15 years in Northern Alberta on a homestead as part of “back to the land ” movement. During that time the group of urban ex-pats in the area held a number of work bees, barn railings or general “help each other out days” – all of which ended in home grown music, wine and smoke!

Thus the idea of real time (F2F or online) work together to  accomplish a specify and time limited task is appealing. I’ll be joint just to see how it goes and to add a word or two on OERs.

If it looks productive and fun, I’ll try to organize a similar event this fall to focus on the lack of quality and in-depth articles in Wikipedia on Distance Education (e-learning, online learning) or whatever popular term is.  I think many of our masters and EdD. students at Athabasca  have much that could be contributed and this format might have the right ingredients for a significant contribution.

Here is the invite letter sent to a Paul Basich, a colleague with the Poerup research project and  UK friend:

Let’s get this done!

You are cordially invited to join us for a free “Wikipedia Barnraising” event on Saturday July 19th, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific Time, at the Oakland Impact Hub, 2323 Broadway, Oakland, California — or join us online! Lunch and refreshments will be provided for those joining us in person.Since 2012, we’ve been working — with substantial help from many of you — to strengthen Wikipedia’s coverage of Open Educational Resources and related topics. We’ve worked to build a community around this goal — at conferences in the field, through our online “Writing Wikipedia Articles” (WIKISOO) course, and through the formation of WikiProject Open.

At the Barn Raising, we will focus on high priority Wikipedia articles: articles that are widely read, but that — despite ongoing efforts — remain poorly sourced, incomplete, or out of date. (In the wiki world, we often borrow the term “Barn Raising” to evoke the idea of a community coming together to build something substantial in a short time. It’s been described as a way to “make the impossible possible.”)

We welcome online participants from around the world — and we have a few tricks up our sleeves to help everyone work together smoothly.

Please register, whether you are attending virtually or in person:

Barn Raising registration form

This event is open to all. Our goal is to make significant improvements to OER-related articles; so if you are brand new to Wikipedia and/or open education, you might want to take a little time to prepare. We will send out helpful resources for beginners as the date gets closer.

We look forward to seeing you, online or in person, and to raising a wiki barn with you!

Pete & Sara