LMS Usage Transparency


I was pretty conflicted whether to post this at all – you may have noted the frequency of posting on anything LMS-related is WAY down on edtechpost, ever since I got born-again, and the vision of learning here seems, well, problematic at least (which is why I removed the title “A Student Feedback Tool That Links CMS Use with Good Grades” from the original link).

But…this is interesting and does deserve some attention both for its steps towards transparency and some of the ways in which transparency is being used to engender positive faculty peer pressure. I can already hear all sorts of howls from every direction – about faculty rights and independence, about the shallowness of this as a ‘ratings’ scheme, of students gaming the system, of… Yeah, I get it.

But if you find yourself charged with supporting and promoting a campus system (and don’t actually feel like answering for yourself the soul destroying question of why you have to sell something if it is actually as valuable as it’s supposed to be) then maybe this will jog some ideas loose. While I will continue to suggest that simply being fully open is ultimately a better way to address many of these issues, until that ideal situation pertains, sometimes we gotta take our ‘openings’ where we can find them. “There is a crack in everything…” – SWL

BC “Learning Content Strategies” meeting


Most of you will know one of my long term projects has been to help share online learning resources across BC and beyond. One of the main stumbling blocks to effective sharing has been the diverse (divisive?) environments in which the material are produced/housed/assembled (at last count there are at least 5 major flavours of LMS in our 26 institutions, as well as sundry other ones and non-LMS approaches as well).

I’ve always held that a top-down “standards” approach isn’t the answer; not only is my project not big enough to compell that kind of change, I am thoroughly sceptical of any of the current standards-based approaches to actually work across all of these LMS. Plus for any “solution” to be adopted, it needs to reflect local realities and priorities at institutions, and be seen to solve local problems before it (or at least, as it) solves the ones of sharing outside the institution.

Add to this the fact that I am loathe to highlight only solutions that would simply further entrench LMS-based solutions or that don’t take into account the learning we’ve all been doing about the role of openness, or the new approaches which social software and other loosely-coupled technologies can offer, and we faced a quandry. How to frame a meeting that brought up the issues, highlighted the common pain points, and ALSO presented both LMS-oriented and other approaches to learning content/learning environments?

Thanks to a suggestion from Michelle Lamberson, we decided that framing the day around the conceit of “Learning Content Strategies” was the perfect way to bring all of this together (seems obvious now, but we struggled for a while for the right frame.)

After a very brief intro from me, we kicked off the day with an hour long discussion of common problems and challenges around learning content. I facilitated this, getting the discussion going with a set of questions that people answered using iClickers. (As an aside, while I recognize lots of potential problems with clickers, I was frankly blown away by how well the iClicker technology itself worked. Truly simple to use and functioned flawlessly.) It felt to me like a good start to highlighting some of the common problems people are facing and laid the groundwork for the rest of the day.
The next step was to showcase work of a few institutions around the province who, in my experience, have developed different approaches to developing content indepedant of their LMS environments. Katy Chan from UVic, Enid McCauley from Thompson Rivers and Rob Peregoodoff from Vancouver Island University all graciously shared with us some insight into their content development processes and the factors that shaped their choices. The important thing that came out of this for me is that none of these approaches is the “right” one, just the “right” one for their context – they ranged from standalone HTML development, to industrial XML production, to Macromedia Contribute, and each had its strengths but also possibly its complications. It’s a tradeoff, you see, like any choice. But they certainly gave their peers in the audience lots to think about.

After lunch I trotted out my dog and pony show, highlighting some of our offerings from BCcampus as well as launching the new Free leaning site. I still live in hope that some of these offerings will resonate with our system partners (a boy can dream) and already there seems to be some renewed interest, which is heartening.

The afternoon was given over to a completely different set of approaches to the problem. Like I said, while the vast majority of our institutions use LMS as their primary online learning platform, that is not the future, or at least, not the future I hope for, so we wanted to expose people to some approaches already happening in the province that are outside the LMS, ones that used loosely-coupled approaches or “openness” as an enabler.

First up was Brian Lamb and Novak Rogic from UBC, and I’m pretty sure their demos of moving content to and fro using WordPress, Mediawiki, their fabulous “JSON includes” and “Mediawiki embeds” techniques left some jaws dropped on the floor. A hard act to follow indeed, but Grant Potter from UNBC did a great job, showing off their own work with blogs and wikis for shared and distributed content development.

Finally, since all the presentations to date had been from a somewhat “institutional” perspective, I thought it important to get an instructor up there to show what a single person can do with the current technologies, and who better to do so than Richard Smith from SFU. Worried though he claimed to be about following @brlamb and co. on stage, he needn’t have – his session was a blast, showing off many web 2.0 tools that he uses with his students. I think some of the biggest value from that session was challenging the notions of the handhel instructor, of the assumption that media must have high production values to be useful, and that this tech is just for “distance” learners. Richard basically made the case that he is able to offer more than 100% seats in his class by always having remote and archived materials for the students. I’m pretty sure this turned more than a few heads.

In the end, my nicely laid plans for orderly rountable discussions were thrown out the window, and I tried as best I could to facilitate a whole room discussion on the fly. I think it went pretty well;  we tore through many of the real challenges people face, from single sign-on to copyright, offering some new ways to think about these and identifying what I hope are some things we can keep working on together as a province.

In all honesty, this meeting went as well, even better, than I had hoped. My goal was not to propose a single solution (as I do not believe there is just one solution) but to bring the problems to light, to get people to acknowledge they exist, and to give them a chance to see some different ways to deal with them, and talk amongst themselves. My experience with this group and with the ed tech professionals in BC in general is, give them a chance to talk and share and don’t be surprised at the number of collaborations and shared solutions that emerge. I have great hope that this is just the start of the conversation and of renewed efforts. – SWL

Course Management System Content Conversion Tools wikipage


One of my main gigs is running a repository service to help faculty here in BC share online course content. As I have likely lamented far too many times, the bane of my existence is the uneven support for content interoperability across the various course management systems. At last count we had at least 6 flavours in the province in which ideally the content would work, and certainly would love it if it’d work with others too. So while I personally believe CMS are increasingly bankrupt as a model for online education and continue to work with others to demonstrate new ways of teaching and learning online, my reality is that the content I am asked to help share is almost exclusively CMS-based, and moreover built directly inside the CMS, thus somewhat reliant on the vendors to provide easy and open ways for getting it out. Yeah right.

We come at this issue from many different directions trying to improve it. We built a “best practice” wiki to encourage people in the province to share their tricks and tips on how to work with CMS and still get content out “cleanly.” We are looking at some content “convertors” as part of the repository framework to clean up some of the exports into better formats (a dicey proposition at best). We’re experimenting with a “harvestor” that will grab CMS content not through the API but by spidering course sites.

Along these lines, I have put together this wiki page to collect together whatever CMS content export/conversion tools I can find, mostly for the CMS flavours at play in the province, but not totally limited to.

And I’d like to invite you to play. There are multiple ways to contribute to this – if you have a wikispaces account, I will gladly add you to the site. If instead you are a del.icio.us user, simply tag any resource you think appropriate with “cms_migration” (or even just send it my way with the “for:nessman” tag). Am I duplicating effort here? Please tell me if you know of another good collection of CMS conversion tools. I have no need to re-invent the wheel here, just trying to give people as many options as possible. Please also tell me if I am barking up any wrong trees with my assessment of what CMS already work well (or not) with each other – I get sporadic access to any of these, and the situation often changes with versions etc. If you can think of a better way to do this, I’m all ears for that too. – SWL

Martin Weller on Tony Hirst’s Stringle

and http://ouseful.open.ac.uk/stringle2.php

Martin Weller and Tony Hirst have joined Marc Eisenstadt as bloggers from the UK’s Open University whose posts I now eagerly await, so it’s a distinct pleasure to find Martin posting about Tony’s project, Stringle.

I can almost hear the chorus now about how “a PLE is not an application” and yes, but whatever. Tony has assembled a really useful demonstration of how, using feeds, services like grazer and OPML manager and many of the free web 2.0 applications out there (this demonstration uses Google docs, PBWiki, ELGG and Gliffy to name a few), a fairly comprehensive environment can be aggregated together for learners. I don’t think this precludes all of the great learning resources out on the open web at all, in fact it rather welcomes them, and tools and services like Dappit, OpenKapow and ScreenScrapper are now making it easy for anyone to create RSS feeds for web content where previously there were none. It’s not hard for me to see how with something like OpenID implemented on many of these services all of a sudden you can have your safe password protected areas for student work and eat your open web 2.0 cake too. Take some time and play around with what Tony has assembled and see if it doesn’t jog your imagination. Is it going to replace your CMS tomorrow. Probably not if you are wedded to how that’s working for you. But darn if it doesn’t beckon to a day when making use of a new Web 2,0 app in your course in a way that works for you, for students AND your administration isn’t as easy as … rip, mix, feed. – SWL

First Canadian Moodle Moot


Hopefully all the Moodlers out there will already know about this through their regular Moodle forums, but I thought I’d give a shout out to the upcoming Canadian Moodle Moot being hosted May 3 – 5, 2007 in Edmonton, Alberta by Athabasca University and my own organization, BCcampus, amongst others. There looks to be still time to submit both F2F and Online presentation proposals (the Moot will have both a f2f and online component) and early bird registration ends in April. While I’d love to attend I regret this may not be in the cards, though hopefully I can still sign up for the virtual component. – SWL

Effects of Information Distributions Strategies on Student Performance in a CMS


This is one of those papers where I find myself thinking “freakin’ amazing, I can’t believe it” (yes, I really think like that) but by the end I’ve been reduced to, “ok, but a sample of 50 students? And all of them graduate students of education from 3 courses?” I’m not saying that invalidates the results, and the paper itself actually seems well written. But if you do buy into its arguments, then this SHOULD be sending shockwaves (at least shivers) through ed tech departments (and the people who fund them) across the world. Why? Because it throws into serious doubt the value of course management systems when used (predominantly, as other studies, like Morgan’s, have shown) as really expensive web filing or content management systems in support of face to face courses. This doesn’t necessarily sound the death knell for CMS; as the study concludes, instead one could draw the conclusion that if you want to see positive effects on pedagogy by using a CMS then use them, well, pedagogically, not as a glorified filing cabinet. But still, it does start to put to the test the conventional wisdom that simply giving people access to reading materials ahead of time will inevitably increase their learning. (First seen in Distance Educator.) – SWL

Moodle Pilot Report from Idaho State University


Via Jim Farmer comes a link to this Pilot Report from the Instructional Technology Resource Center at Idaho State University, a current WebCT 4 customer. On the basis of this small (20 instructor) pilot, they are going expand it to 50 users. What I thought was interesting (and maybe the Moodle folks will notice this too) is that the only functionality that both students and faculty seemed not totally thrilled about were the assessment and grading capabilities in Moodle. That seems about right. Especially if you’ve used WebCT 6/Vista, which I have to admit seems pretty decent in this capacity. And you can tut-tut all you like about how those are such ‘administrative’ tools, but time and again the surveys come back that grading/gradebook management is actually one of the most used aspects of the CMS, ignored at CMS developers’ own peril. – SWL

Ohloh comparison of Sakai and Moodle


Jim Farmer points to a comparison of the Sakai and Moodle projects done by Ohloh, a very cool site that provides objective information about open source projects. Instead of looking at Jim’s PDF file, you can check out the Sakai and Moodle reports directly on the Ohloh site. Ohloh’s reports are produced by looking at the source code repository (either Subversion, CVS or Git are currently supported) and it’s value is in creating human readable (and very attractive) reports on empirical data that such repositories capture. The sparklines depicting developer activity make it really obvious how many regular contributors there are to a project, and the Project Cost estimator provides a cute way to scare your pointy headed boss out of thinking you could accomplish the same thing in-house in a few evenings and a couple of cases of Red Bull. – SWL

Blackboard’s Social Bookmarking Service


This looks to be a new social bookmarking service launched by Blackboard. The difference from existing services like del.icio.us? Well, not much, as far as I can tell, except that it is aimed solely at Blackboard and WebCT customers (non-customers can search the site and find links, but not contribute). So why would you use this? Presumably Blackboard had enough existing customers ask them for a social bookmarking facility that was integrated with their Blackboard accounts which they could “safely” use with their students.

I am sure they will get demonized for this. Me, sure I’d love to see systems that instead of creating additional silos and enclaves allowed users to move in an authenticated form from the institution’s systems to ones out on the general web, you know, have my cake and eat it too. But the customers (that’s you, right) have got to demand this, not expect vendors whose whole business model is ‘lock in’ to simply just provide it. And the sad fact of the matter is that none of the internet-wide identity plays seem really up to this. Yet. This is one place where Open Source could make a huge difference, as introducing new features there does not have to be limited solely by the focus on profits. You’d think. Yet for some reason I still can’t get a simple OpenID plugin for WordPress. The pundits are right, identity will be big in 2007. But without the move of some major market shaker towards one of the ‘open’ approaches, don’t be surprised if it’s a continuation of the silo arms race between the bigs (read Google, Yahoo and MSN, not Blackboard) instead of a signle sign on paradise that results. – SWL

UPDATE: Blackboard have updated their blog with more details on this initiative, some of which is reminiscent of the EduGlu conversation. Does this mean we can sue them now 😉

Comparison of CMS, Course Materials Life Cycle, and Related Costs


My colleagues Bruce Landon and Russ Poulin were commissioned last year by MIT to produce a report which compared the CMS practices and costs, as well as the life cycle of course materials, at ‘peer’ institutions in an effort to provide a benchmark for future decision making. I was just informed that MIT has generously made the report more widely available online at the above location. In addition to MIT itself, the peer institutions surveyed included Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley, Harvard (College of Arts and Sciences), University of Chicago, Middlebury, University of Texas at Austin, Princeton and Yale.

So while you might not consider your institution a “peer” (but hey, why not, in this global,online economy) I expect there will be something of interest to anyone involved with the management of institution-wide CMSes. It’s a lengthy report (90 pages) but in it you’ll find such things as costing and support information from a wide variety of scenarios, though one of the findings was that

most of the institutions did not have a better handle on cost data and that (for many of the respondents) costs were not a principle driver in decision-making.

It should also not be surprising to anyone having to deal with higher ed content management practices that the survey shows them to be all over the place and largely still a matter left up to the whims of the individual instructor. Which might seem fine to many except consider that “the annual costs of course materials can exceed the cost of the C/LMS by millions” and we all know at some point, something is going to give. – SWL