OpenFiction [Blog]

You can call me Al

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 30, 2005

A colleague asked me recently why I didn’t describe tOFP as an “opencourseware,” which is a good question. I certainly think of (at least) the courseware site as being an opencourseware. This blog and the wiki aren’t opencoursewares as I think of them, but the coursework is material that was created for a specific instance of instruction that is now being shared openly on the web. (Complete disclosure: I obviously did a little scrubbing and reformatting to generalize the materials somewhat, in part because I was putting the materials up independent of Emerson, where the course had been taught, so I removed the course number and other related information.)

This, though, points to one of the distinctions I make in my mind between opencourseware content and learning objects. I tend to think of opencourseware content as being learning artifacts rather than the traditional idea of learning objects. Some in the opencourseware community believe this makes the content sound out-of-date, but I do think it points to one of the key reasons opencoursewares will be scalable. Opencourseware materials represent the digital tools created for a learning experience, but don’t explicitly attempt to recreate that learning experience online. They are the digital tracks of the machine, rather than the machine itself.

Of course, the idea is that a substantially complete set of opencourseware materials will provide educators and learners a set of blueprints with which to build their own very similar machine, suited to their particular needs and environment. But the machine itself isn’t built to operate under a wide range of conditions. As I’ve argued before, going the extra mile to create the generalized machine exacts a heavy toll on scalability and sustainability. It’s a heck of a lot easier and cheaper to publish materials as the artifacts they were when originally created than to generalize everything into learning objects, and I’ve yet to see a compelling case for the increased usefulness of the extra effort.

Anyway, back to the “What’s in a name?” question. I was really jazzed to come across the K12EdCom site, which describes itself as an “Educational Commons for OpenCourseWare” serving K-12 educators and students. It’s fantastic to see a formal open sharing project addressing to K-12 education (realizing that there has long been an informal amount of sharing at this level), and it’s fantastic to see the term “OpenCourseWare” moving out into the educational community as a recognized term.

I do worry somewhat, though, about the dilution of the idea of opencourseware as interpreted by increasingly diverse projects. I see much of the power of the opencourseware model as related to the organization as courses, and to the wide curricular coverage afforded by publishing “artifacts” rather than “objects.” K12EdCom seems to lean a little toward the object end of the spectrum, and it includes mixed sets of content, not all of which is organized as courses. All of this content is great, especially in that it is being openly shared. As opencourseware matures as a component of the larger open educational resources movement, though, I think there is value for educators and learners using the sites in having a clear and consistent approach. To be clear, I’m feeling that the community ought to be discussing best practices, not that there’s anything wrong with K12EdCom using the term. Plus they have really interesting stuff.

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The wide view

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 26, 2005

I’d also put forth the assignment in the previous post as an example of why opencourseware sharing ought to be going on at a wide range of schools rather than just the big elites. Ignoring for the moment the quality of the assignment, it’s worth noting that it’s not an assignment that would have been developed by an instructor at a top school teaching top students. They’d assume their students to be comfortable reading something like Orientalism, assign it to be read, and move on. It’s an assignment developed in an environment where adult students were re-entering the academic environment, and lacked confidence more than ability.

I do see a time when large numbers of schools, big and small, will have opencoursware sites, and each will have a particular sphere of influence. Bigger schools with better reputations will of course have more influence, but small schools that teach niche audiences will also be sharing educational materials uniquely tailored to their needs. I heard some people express concern that too many schools with opencoursewares would flood the web with materials of uneven quality, but even in the absence of a federated search system, I think the combination of school reputation, peer referral system such as del.icio.us and the inexorable march of Google will resolve this problem.

L-O-L-A LoLa

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 25, 2005

Was really excited to come across Academic Commons and the Academic Commons Quarterly. Always room for more good representation of the liberal arts in educational technology discussions. I’m a little surprised I didn’t hear about the site sooner, as David Bogen at Emerson is one of the Quarterly editors. David runs the Learning Portals Project over at Emerson and has been working in some really interesting directions.

A while back, in January of last year, David invited me back to Emerson to participate in a web portal summit that brought together many of the people I see are involved in Academic Commons, including Michael Roy. Michael is one of the key people involved in the LoLa learning object repository at Wesleyan. At the time of the summit, I was still pretty deep in the OCW pilot phase weeds, but I do remember being impressed with an aspect of the LoLa project–it not only stores learning objects, but also the assignments that instructors developed around them (see the CC-style animation on the home page). This resonated with my thinking about the importance of capturing circumstances of modification and reuse of learning objects.

It was clear at the time that scalability was going to be a big issue for LoLa. The folks at Wesleyan themselves were only going to be able create a handful of objects at a time. If every small school were able to do the same, and be sure that no one was duplicating effort, they could create a body of useful objects, but getting everyone together seemed tough. I couldn’t have articulated this then, but it seems to me now that the requirement for a learning object to submit assignments around may simply be too high an ante for most players. Why not allow people to post assignments without the effort and expense of creating a learning object attached? Of course they would still have the same metadata and classification issues, and would have to be reworked by the end users, but the collection would likely grow much faster.

For example, I had an assignment that worked really well with adult students in getting them to read difficult expository passages with confidence. I took a very short but complicated argument (in my classes, the nine paragraphs that contained the heart of Said’s thesis in Orientalism, but any similar text would work). I let them read the passage on their own, knowing most would struggle and mostly skim, expecting me to summarize it for them. Instead, we discussed in a general way the basics of expository prose, and how paragraphs were structured with topic sentences and supporting evidence. I broke the class–which usually numbered 12-16 students–into three groups and assigned three paragraphs to each group. Then I asked each group to identify the topic sentences in their paragraphs.

Individually, most would have been too unsure of their critical reading abilities to pick the topic sentences, but working together, they usually came to a consensus within about ten minutes. I then asked them to select one person per paragraph in each group to explain how the evidence supported the topic sentence. We then reconvened as a class, and the students–one by one–walked themselves through the argument. By the end, most of the class members usually had a really good understanding of Said’s argument, but even more importantly for me, I could see the increased confidence they had in their ability to work through a text that moments before they’d abandoned as too complicated. For the rest of the semester, we read personal narratives through the lens of Said’s idea, and the students were able to accomplish some fairly sophisticated critiques.

Anyway, it’s not an assignment that I would ever bother creating a learning object out of–even though I can see how one might use it in a discussion board environment–but it’s one I could see other instructors using online or off, swapping in whatever critical text they were interested in using. Not an assignment, then, that would make it into LoLa because it lacks the digital center of gravity, but an assignment that worked well enough with adult students that I clearly think it worth the trouble to post.

Critical perspectives – Receptive vs. productive literacy

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 24, 2005

What’s this?

One bone to pick with JSB and others who discuss a “new type of literacy” emerging with the new technologies of the producer culture. There have been two types of literacy for as long as there have been media, and we’ve taught both in as much as the media have allowed. I describe them as receptive and productive literacy. Receptive literacy as applied to written text is the traditional definition of literacy–the ability to read; productive literacy is the literacy one develops when one learns composition. It’s not the same as the ability to write–in fact, even poor writers can have high levels of productive literacy, which is the ability–as a reader–to understand how a piece of writing is constructed. It’s entirely possible to understand the content of a news article without understanding the technicalities of how news articles are constructed; knowing how they get written, though, can provide more insight into a range of issues, not the least of which are the biases of the writer.

Similarly, we have for many decades had a population that is receptively visually literate. There was a brief period in the early 1900’s when films were around, but quite literally people did not know how to watch them. Since that time, almost everybody has been trained to understand movies as an audience. One of the reasons movies seemed magical, though, was because few people were visually productively literate, and so the motives and biases of the filmmakers were largely opaque. What JSB and George Lucas and Elizabeth Daly are describing is the explosion of productive literacy in all media enabled by new technologies. Because it has become easy and inexpensive for most people to become producers in a range of media, a much wider range of people are developing an understanding of how works in those media are constructed.

I’d go even further and divide productive literacy into narrative and argumentative branches that span media. Of course you can’t directly translate all elements of narrative textual productive literacy into a productive understanding of visual narrative, but there are a lot of commonalities. Likewise with how arguments get constructed in various media. This is exactly why I find teaching fiction to have political implications. Understanding how fictional stories are created can provide students with the productive literacy required to pick apart stories they are told in other contexts…

JSB on producer culture in education?

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 22, 2005

If you haven’t listened to John Seely Brown’s recently published (I can’t bring myself to used “podcasted” just yet–give me time) keynote speech at the University of Colorado System’s 2005 Teaching with Technology Conference, it’s well worth the hour and a half. Near the end, he even cites opencourseware sharing as one of the exciting new trends in education (though I am more pleased with the billing he gives to MIT’s studio architecture classes and the TEAL labs, as sharing those and other innovative pedagogies is the whole point of MIT OCW, and they properly deserve the attention).

I’m struck by how well his examples answer the queston I asked last week: What does education begin to look like in producer culture? He isn’t using the term producer culture, of course, but listen with an ear for how much language he uses that is directly applicable to the producer culture idea. He draws a distinction between old modes of education as “learning about” and new modes as “learning to be.” I’d add “learning about a product” versus “learning to be a producer,” whatever that means to a given field. He also discusses the rise of “serious amateurs” having a tremendous impact on particular fields. But beyond this language usage, look at how many of the examples are about students repositioning themselves as producers (either of field-specific products or their own educational experiences).

tOFP 2.0

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 19, 2005

So it took me less time to get the site reworked for the wiki than I thought it would. I’m pleased to launch the latest iteration of tOFP, which–in addition to the wiki–includes an anthology. Of sorts. Right now it’s simply my two published stories, included under a non-commercial/no derivatives CC license. I’m going to bother a few friends for high-mileage stories (ones that are published, anthologized and otherwise marketed to their useful end as commercial entities).

I’m not including the anthology to hype my own work, or to get into the business of publishing others’, but it became clear that one limit on tOFP visitors’ ability to post craftbook entries was that they’d have a hard time with not being able to include quotes from stories they reference. The anthology is at least a start toward a body of stories that can usefully be quoted in the wiki, and stories that can be readily used as the “selected stories” students need to complete some OFP assignments. I also realized that the model that may work better for the craftbook is for visitors to blog their own entries and link out as I have done. This would allow them to use other licenses, should they prefer. Anyway, I’m pleased with the new additions–I hope visitors will be as well.

Participatory Culture Foundation

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 18, 2005

So here‘s a great expression of producer culture. The implications of participants in domains of culture becoming self-aware as producers–rather than consumers–really fascinate me. Clearly this is happing in music, film, news, and other media fields, with dramatic consequence. What will be the impact on education when the majority of students begin to understand themselves as producers of their own learning experiences?

Element 7.1

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 18, 2005

I had occasion yesterday to download and look at the IEEE LOM for the fist time. The last time I’d looked at a metadata spec was in ’01, the IMS 1.2.1 final. At that time, I’d been teaching the course that would become tOFP for a few years, and was working with two other writing instructors to create other distance learning writing courses. I was of course also interested in getting the maximum benefit out of the materials we were creating, and so started looking around for ways of doing so. It was about this time I began experimenting with metadata, and reading David Wiley’s writing on the subject (which was a tremendous help).

I have a background in relational database design and implementation (mostly using FileMaker–and I’ll ignore for purposes here the question of whether it’s a “real” relational database), and so with my commute time (always amazing to me what can be accomplished in twenty minutes a day if you do it every day), I set about creating a system to organize metadata about the classes we were developing (and other resources). It was clear from the beginning that creating metadata would be an enormous amount of work, the more so the more granularly we wanted to track the information. The tool also tracked licensing fees, because we were asking the instructors to create the materials on their own time and license use of them to us when and if courses actually ran, so it had to figure out how to calculate fees at multiple granularities.

It was also clear from early on that some of the most important data, and the most difficult to capture, was in Element 7.1, which tracks the kind of relationship the resource has to other learning resources. 7.1 was a problem an order of magnitude beyond the multiplying records caused by granularity. Relationships exploded exponentially as you broke the courses down into their elements, and tracking all of the relationships seemed both impossible and vital. Beyond that, it seemed equally vital to track relationships generated by reuse (in large part to track the license fees associated. I came up with an ER model for the database that leveraged FileMaker’s ability to look up data from one record in creating another, which cut the effort required to enter the metadata, provided you started at the highest granularity and worked your way down to the lowest. It also allowed for tracking of these parent-child relationships, thus automating the capture of a lot of element 7.1 data.

It was about this time that a number of things occurred. FileMaker came out with a new version, I moved from Emerson to MIT, and I realized that on top of tracking original and reuse relationships, the system would need to track derivations as well. I started from scratch and rebuilt the system in the new FileMaker version, incorporating a number of new ideas (including tracking of Creative Commons licenses). Ultimately, I shelved the project because I didn’t have a test use for it, and there were a few FileMaker tricks I needed to learn to get some of the functionality to work. But what has stuck with me from the project is the importance of element 7.1 data–the circumstances under which resources are created, reused and modified. I still feel like this data is the heart of metadata’s usefulness. Of course it’s great to know the “how big?”s and “what format?”s, but if you can locate a resource of any format and usefully understand its relationships to a range of other fields and uses, you’re 90% there. A little tweaking and hacking can usually get you the rest of the way.

Adult education

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 16, 2005

I found out recently from a friend that Emerson College had decided to eliminate their Adult Degree Program. I was really saddened to hear about it, in part because my first real professional job was coordinating that program, but also because know it means a loss of opportunity for a population of students I really came to admire in my time there. Even as I left Emerson three years ago, though, the handwriting was on the wall.

I spent the two years while I was coordinator increasing enrollment in the program, doubling it to around 250 students, and helping them to get access to courses offered by the traditional departments in addition to our night classes. It ultimately turned out to be too much of a good thing, making the program too visible, and the administration became concerned that these night students were getting “the same” education as the day students at a substantially reduced rate, which they didn’t feel they could justify.

The adult students were getting the same degree as the traditional students (Emerson is one of the few places that didn’t create an artificial “night school” degree), but any of them could have told you that the value of a bachelor’s degree earned at thirty-five is substantially different from one earned at twenty-one. I doubt any of the traditional students would have chosen to trade ten years for the lower rate. In fact, if I recall correctly, the rule was a traditional student could enter the evening program if they sat out a year, and I can’t recall a single instance of this happening.

What has remained with me from the very early days of my time there, though, was the real value the students placed on getting their degrees, even if it might only make incremental improvements in their earning potential. The students really valued the opportunity to study and learn, and battled through every imaginable life obstacle to complete their degrees. This understanding of the importance of education to not just career but to human dignity has profoundly influenced my belief in the importance of opening up educational opportunity. The end of this program marks a real, if unrecognized, loss to the Emerson Community.

Producer culture and learning objects

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 15, 2005

As always, I am just a little less radical than David Wiley. Or not. I taught adult students for five years as an adjunct instructor, which colors my views in many ways. I share Freire’s view, and agree that in the ideal, students would always be expected to act as producers–not consumers–of knowledge. I also know that, at least for the areas in which I’ve taught (and those in which my wife, a composition/literature/creative writing instructor, has taught), students still largely think of themselves as consumers. In the case of the freshmen my wife teaches, this is about habit and limited experience. With the adult students I taught, it’s very much about the economic transaction that is adult education–they are paying for an education they hope will substantially improve their lives, and expect to be given information, tools and techniques they can use in their daily lives.

Even in the field of creative writing (where students are explicitly expecting to become producers of fiction), it’s hard to move students away from their consumer expectations with respect to education. The text of tOFP courseware is partly banking concept in its approach, presenting the ten or twelve canonical topics that all writers must master before they have even the faintest hope of stringing together two decent sentences. Of course the writing exercises force students to become producers of their own education. The craftbook, though, is the element of the course that really seeks to relocate students as producers of their own education, helping them to develop tools for expanding their own understanding of fictional craft, rather than simply giving them the content as I see it. (I can see now that I should have gone the next step and asked them to create their own writing exercises to help them to challenge themselves. Teaching: The ever unfinished project.)

So if I’ve created a distance learning course that is in my own opinion partially consumer culture in its approach, how can I argue that consumer culture is the wrong approach for learning objects? I wouldn’t class the courseware for tOFP as a “learning object,” especially in that I don’t see it as more than incidentally reusable. It was designed not for wide reuse, but for use by a specific instructor with a specific set of students at a particular moment in the history of educational technology. I do think there is a group of learners out there who are able to reuse the material, but only because their educational and cultural backgrounds position them to do so. I mostly see the materials as being more widely useful for adaptation, which is to say that for those educators and students that do approach the materials from a producer culture perspective, there’s a fair amount that can be adapted for other uses.

This points again to the tension between educational technology and open sharing. I don’t think all of educational technology is inappropriate to consumer culture models–I learned Microsoft Access using a set of very consumer culture educational technology materials. The opportunity for leveraging technology for wide reuse of these heavily formatted materials (the learning object model) is simply limited by largely non-technical constraints; it’s more achievable to make lightly formatted materials available for wide adaptation, which is a producer culture model. Any formatting done beyond the minimum required to publish widely is bound to be at best only marginally helpful, and at worst can limit others’ ability to adapt the materials. So, design for what’s in front of you, and distribute as much of the result as widely as you can to educators and learners who will adapt from what you’ve done. Enough people doing just this will allow useful formats to emerge organically, rather than trying to impose one particular approach at the point of open publication. One of the things I love about Wiley and COSL’s eduCommons as a tool for open sharing is that it is relatively format agnostic. It takes a wide range of format types and makes them available with relatively low effort.