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.