Category Archives: Learning Management Systems

The Relationship Between Facebook and GPAs

by Martin LaGrow

In 2009, a doctoral candidate from Ohio State University conducted a study of college students who use Facebook regularly (who knew there were any that didn’t?) and shared the results with the American Education Research Association (http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1891111,00.html). The study of 219 undergraduate and graduate students found that the GPAs of Facebook users averaged about a full grade point lower than those of nonusers. The implied conclusion—that Facebook has a detrimental impact on academics—is inescapable. Neuroscientists even go a step farther to claim that Facebook inhibits normal brain development and person-to-person interaction. Oxford professor Susan Greenfield suggests that constant connection to social media is guilty of “infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noised and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1153583/Social-websites-harm-childrens-brains-Chilling-warning-parents-neuroscientist.html).”
The case against Facebook seemed pretty grim for students, but the growing tide against the social media monster also generated pushback. Just like people can’t blame the fast food industry for their weight issues, perhaps college students can’t blame Facebook for their low GPA. Reynol Junco of Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania supported this premise after conducting a study of 1,839 college students. His conclusion was that for every 93 minutes spent on Facebook, the GPA dropped just .12 grade points. “Facebook use in and of itself is not detrimental to academic outcome,” says Junco. “It depends how it’s used (http://reyjunco.com/wordpress/pdf/JuncoCHBFacebookGrades.pdf).” Junco even went one step further to suggest that using Facebook as an information-gathering source can even increase GPA’s.
Going back to the original study, if we accept the premise that Facebook users earn a full grade lower than non-users, we then have to address the fact that correlation does not equal causation. It’s critical to look at the nature of the individual who is drawn to use social media two hours a day. This is a person who desires instant feedback. It is a person who wants social interaction. It is a person who does not just want to be passively engaged, but wants to be part of the dialogue. It is a person who wants to share thoughts, feelings, and ideas for the response of others, as well as to participate in the dialogue when others post theirs. In a traditional LMS, where controlled content is king, this learner will not thrive.
Junco’s study forces us to take a step back and recognize that the original study has nothing to do with whether someone chooses to use Facebook or not and it has more to do with different styles of learning. Facebook does well what traditional LMSs do poorly—it provides tools for engagement that suit the user. It is intuitive. It is open. Interaction and connections are the most valuable component, and that mimics the way that most people learn. Perhaps the question is not “How does Facebook affect GPAs?” but rather, “How can education learn from Facebook to increase GPAs?”

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Filed under Learning Management Systems, learning outcomes, Martin LaGrow, social media

Making the Connection between Millenial Students and Online Education

by Hap Aziz

Earlier this week I attended a conference (for our Ellucian CIOs), and one of the sessions that greatly interested me was “Millienial Behaviors and Higher Educations Focus Group Results” presented by Richard Sweeney, the university librarian for the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Mr. Sweeney’s session was actually in two segments: he first discussed what the research has revealed about Millennial students, and then a group of 13 college and university students were brought onstage as a live focus group. He asked the group several questions (the answers the students gave to some of which were quite surprising), and then for about the last 15 minutes of the session, the students fielded questions from the audience.

Millennial students were defined as those now going to school that were born between 1980 and 2000 – aged ranging fr0m 12 to 32 years old. In a study* comparing Millennial medical students to Generation X medical students, the Millennials were found to be more warm and outgoing, more abstract than concrete, more adaptive and mature, more dutiful, more socially bold and adventuresome, more sensitive and sentimental, more self-doubting and worried, more open to change and experimenting, and more organized and self disciplined. One of the key findings of the study is that Millennials “have greater needs to belong to social groups and to share with others, stronger team instincts and tighter peer bonds, and greater needs to achieve and succeed” (p. 574). The implications are fuzzy when it comes to online learning. Must these social groups be face to face, or will online social networks provide the requisite connectivity between the individuals?

In either case, as educators we need to optimize the social characteristics of the online experience in order to facilitate the Millenials’ feelings of belonging and abilities to bond with their peers. Another datapoint** shared by Mr. Sweeney is that for Millennials, “interaction and a sense of community are the key requests of those born digital when it comes to online learning, as surveys indicate” (p. 248). If we look at examples of online interaction such as participation in Xbox Live or the Playstation Network, we see that it can be quite compelling. Millions of recurring users subscribing to a pay-for-play model is a strong indicator of success in this case.

Having the student focus group allowed us to ask a sample of Millennial students about their perceptions, and one of the questions was whether or not they liked the online mode of learning. Without exception, all the student panelists expressed the sentiment that their online courses were not engaging, with consensus that online courses were not effective as an avenue for learning. I wanted to dig deeper in this direction, hoping to draw a distinction between online courses and online learning. I asked the students whether or not they were comfortable going online to learn about anything, say for a hobby interest or particular need they may have had at some point in time. Again, there was unanimous agreement–this time to express that going online to learn things was something that the students did regularly. The content that they were able to access for the personal needs was much more engaging than was the content developed for their online courses.

The answer to this question certainly requires further study, but it reinforces an intuition that I (and many educators) have had for quite some time: while online content developed for the general consumer (in a highly mind-share competitive environment) captures attention and brings users back repeatedly, online courses are often bland and uninspiring, and the reasons for their use may vary, but the quality of engagement of the overall online course experience is not among those reasons. This doesn’t surprise me, as I sample online courses developed for and within the current breed of learning management systems. There is a cookie-cutter feel to the content, and while there is greater integration of multimedia materials, these elements are episodic within the courses rather than integrated in a way that provides a true interactive experience to engage the learner.

Is this an artifact of the “mass production” of online courses? Perhaps, but there is little reason for this to be the operational model. A decade ago, designers discussed the power of the World Wide Web based in the ability for the “mass customization” of content. Yet when we examine online courses as currently developed, we see the presentation of an experience that is the same for each and every student within the same course. Every student progresses through the same discussion forums in the same sequence, answering the same prompts. Every student completes the same assignments, usually in the same calendar-driven sequence. Every student listens to the same podcasts, flips through the same PowerPoint slides, and watches the same video clips assigned by their instructors.

The important question to answer now becomes one of transformation. How do we as educators infuse online courses with the level of interactivity that will actually engage our students? (Hint: Think computer games, but think “small” at the same time.)

 

*Nichole J Borges et al.  “Comparing Millennial and Generation X Medical Students at One Medical School.  Academic Medicine;  81.6 (2006): 571-576
**Pauley, John and Urs Gasser. Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.  New York: Basic Books,  2008

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Filed under computer games, education, education course content, education technology, face-to-face instruction, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, higher education, Internet, Learning Management Systems, Millennial students, online education

Legacy Systems and the Anchors that Work Against Change

by Hap Aziz

Back in October, 1995, a small computer company called Be, Inc. (founded by former Apple executives), released a new computer into the marketplace. This machine was called the BeBox, and from 1995 to 1997, less than 2000 of these computers were produced for developers. The BeBox had a lot of unique features going for it such as dual CPUs, built-in MIDI ports, and something called a GeekPort that allowed hardware experimenters both digital and analog access directly to the system bus. One of my personal favorite features of the BeBox was the pair of “Blinkenlight” stacks on both sides of the front bezel. Functioning like a graphic equalizer, they depicted the real-time load of each of the CPUs in the machine.

But as exciting as the hardware was to computer geeks like me, the real revolution was in the Be Operating System, or the BeOS, as it was called. Written specifically to run on the BeBox hardware, BeOS was optimized for digital media applications, and it actually took full advantage of modern computer hardware with its capabilities of symmetric multiprocessing, true preemptive multitasking, and a 64-bit journaling file system (which for practical purposes meant you could shut off power at any time without going through a shut-down process, and when you turned the machine back on, you would find that your open files were still intact).

BeOS was able to accomplish all sorts of things that Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux could not by shedding nearly all of the legacy “baggage” that the other operating systems continued to carry. The Be team was free to rethink the underlying software systems paradigm at the very deepest levels, and the results were truly astounding to those that saw the BeBox in operation.

The moral of the story is that the greatest transformation is possible when we rethink processes and technologies that have been in place for years, decades, and even generations. This is significant when we think of education, because the majority of our education systems are indeed legacy systems, designed and implemented to facilitate processes that were put into practice over a century ago. Even our “modern” Student Information Systems and Learning Management Systems are limited by the “legacy anchor,” and as a result, we see little true transformation in the teaching and learning space. Education timelines are based on year “blocks” of content, and each block is targeted to a particular age group of student (why is every student of approximately the same age grouped in the same grade?). The foundation of the classroom experience is still the lecture, and with online courses we work to “fit the lecture” into an asynchronous mode. Assessment and evaluation processes are, well, pretty much the same as they have been, only with more variation in execution. Schools and institutions of learning are hardly any different than they were in the 1700s–a group of students go to a building where they meet in a room and work with a single instructor. Even in the online environment, we build virtual analogs to the physical world: a group of students go to a URL where they meet in discussion forums and still work with a single instructor.

What would true transformation look like, given the technologies that are available now? How would we write a new, legacy-free education operating system for the 21st century? Those are two very big questions that could spawn a series of lengthy discussions (and, frankly, I need to write a book about it), but I have a few principles that I would offer up:

  • Education should be non-linear from the perspective of time spent on task. That is to say, a concept such as “4th Grade Mathematics” where all 9 year old children are expected to learn the same content over the same amount of time should go away. Little Julie may master fractions and long division in three months while little Stanley may take half a year. At the same time, little Stanley might be happily absorbing 18th century American literature, while little Julie is still working on more basic reading comprehension skills.
  • Places of education should be built to meet specific learner needs rather than be built around the same specifications of classroom space, administration space, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and so on. Why does every elementary school look like every other elementary school, and not just across stretches of geography, but across time as well? The elementary school I attended in the 1960s would function with little modification for my daughter who is in elementary school now. Surely learners (at any age group) are not a monolithic group with singular needs, yet we build places of education as though they are.
  • Education should offer multiple pathways forward rather than a single path that results in matriculation to the “next grade” or failure and repetition of the previous grade. In the world of computer game design, multiple pathways forward is commonplace, allowing players with various skills to progress according to his or her particular strengths–and in making progress, the player is often able to “circle back” and solve particular challenges that he or she was unable to complete earlier in the game. In the same way, a learner may bypass a particularly challenging content area, yet come back with greater skills acquired in a different “track” better able to solve the original challenge.
  • In fact, the idea of “grade levels” is in many respects antithetical to the concept of the lifelong learner. Why measure start points and end points as set dates on a calendar? Rather, education milestones should be set and achieved on a skills-mastery framework, and this process is ongoing for the true lifelong learner. The ramifications of this would be profound on a social level (the singular graduation moment may no longer exist), but from the perspective of personal growth and fulfillment, the benefits could be tremendous, and there will certainly be just as many–if not more–opportunities for celebrations of achievement.

Ultimately, bringing significant transformative change to the education-industrial complex will require rethinking of almost every segment of the teaching and learning process, including the manner in which we engage technologies to support that process. Being willing to discard our legacy baggage will be extremely difficult for many. Yet doing so will be the only way in which we might remix our 21st century technologies of smart devices, mobile connectivity, social media, the Internet, and more into an educational system that meets the diverse needs of our 21st century learners.

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Filed under children, colleges and universities, computer games, creativity, education, education technology, effective practices, emerging technologies, face-to-face instruction, future technology, games, Hap Aziz, higher education, Internet, Learning Management Systems, learning outcomes, legacy systems, online education, smartphones, social media, Student Information System, tablets, technology, virtual college

Selecting Learning Management Systems: Is the RFP Process Appropriate?

By Dr. Suzanne Kissel

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to attend a WCET webcast entitled “Why the RFP Process Doesn’t Work in Today’s LMS Market.”   Pausing only to register, I forwarded the invitation to my colleagues and blocked out the requisite time on Tuesday, May 22nd.  I think that I’m going to make it back from my client meeting just in time to hear the panelists Phil Hill, Executive Vice President at Delta Initiative, and Patrick Masson, Chief Technology Officer at UMassOnline speak to the matter.  As someone involved in helping to write LMS RFP and evaluating the results, I am eager to hear these experts, but I also have my own thoughts.

While looking for an example to share with a colleague, I ran across my notes for putting together an LMS RFP and selection process.  They highlighted the creation of a selection team, identification of a key decision-maker, system & technical requirements, on-site presentations by selected vendors, surveys, and involvement by faculty and staff.  I shot the notes off to my colleague with the thought that they were probably what she wanted before I looked at the date when I wrote them.  It was 2004.

Although it’s certainly possible to argue that LMS aspects have not changed since 2004, what it means to learn and teach online is undergoing vigorous renegotiation.  The well-documented successes of open courses along with free or low-cost online learning tools are just two of many.   Technology and learning are intertwined with each other.  Change in one leads to re-application or re-definition of the other.  So, if the technology has changed or is in the process of changing, why have LMS selection processes more or less stayed the same?

Part of it is the cost and the commitment involved; selecting an LMS has been likened to a marriage.   It’s expensive to get in, but even more expensive to get out.  The stakes are high.   Instructors and administrators have to interact and depend on the LMS on a daily basis.  Glitches in the LMS have wide-reaching implications and must be resolved in a timely manner.  As a result, the RFP process has become increasingly bloated.  It’s expensive to run and even more expensive to participate in.  Smaller companies, open source alternatives, or even free-ware simply cannot compete with the larger players who can create sandboxes, make multiple site visits, and fill out RFP’s that can sometimes reach into the hundreds of pages (I know, I’ve helped create some of these).   Because of the proactive sales and marketing techniques of the larger LMS companies it is not uncommon for institutional stakeholders to have already pretty much made the decision before the RFP has already been written.   The long process often is conducted anyway.

The alternatives to the traditional LMS are out there; the difficulty is changing the RFP process from what it was back in 2004, when there were no alternatives, to select the best product for the school.

If I had to rewrite that 2004 document, how would I do it?  I’d like to share some preliminary thoughts here and hope that they’ll perhaps inspire some discussion.

  1. Evaluate Institutional Needs – Too often, institutions get hung up on features, but the need should be cast wider.  Of course, there is always cost and support.  However, what are the ultimate goals and objectives – are they to grow a distance-learning program?  Retain students? Offer mainly web-enhanced and hybrid courses?  Participate in a consortium or share courses across institutional boundaries?  Try not only to look at present institutional needs, but those that relate to the future as well.
  2. Consider Online Content – More frequently than not, institutions of higher education anticipate updating, reviewing, and considering standards for their online courses at the same time they move LMS.  With the growing demand for differentiated content and, as Phil Hill identifies, the increasing overlap between the LMS platform market and the content market, it becomes important to consider all possible alternatives to the LMS.
  3. Keep an Open Mind – This is open in all sense of the word – open-to-open source, open or Creative Commons licensed content, and open to LMS alternatives.  Of course, this is not to say that one of these should be selected, but this attribute as well as the willingness to do some research should lead to a much more streamlined RFP.

I wanted to write all of this down before the much-anticipated WCET webinar; I look forward to hearing the opinions of the panels and comparing them to my own.  This is an important conversation and I’m glad to have a part in it.

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Filed under education technology, Learning Management Systems

Blackboard Acquires Moodlerooms; Borg Reevalute Strategies for Assimilation

by Hap Aziz

I admit, with the acquisitions that Blackboard has made over the years, I could not resist the Star Trek reference. However, the ramifications for this latest move by the LMS heavyweight are quite far reaching, especially in terms of the impact it could have on the open source marketplace for learning management systems. Realize, that as large as Blackboard’s market share is, even after the acquisitions of WebCT and Angel, their market share as been decreasing–slowly, but decreasing still. This is the type of move that could be considered a game-changer, as long as there is a commitment on the part of Bb leadership to leverage Moodleroom expertise rather than bury it.

(Does anyone remember the story of Quark and mTropolis?)

From our perspective here at Learning Through Play & Technology, there are some definite upsides as well as some potential bad news from this move. We’ll take a few days to survey the education landscape and present our analysis. In the mean time, we encourage you to take a look at what Ray Henderson has to say on the topic.

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Filed under announcement, education technology, Hap Aziz, higher education, Learning Management Systems

Experiences with GoodSemester

by Dr. Suzanne Kissel

I can’t believe that it’s been as long as a month since I was invited to join GoodSemester.  The email has been sitting in my inbox since February 15th, waiting for me to make the time to attend to it properly.  On March 15th, however, the folks at GoodSemester announced that anyone could sign up for an account, for free, no invite required.

So much for exclusivity.

But exclusivity is not really the point of platforms like GoodSemester.   The platform is designed to take advantage of connections between people and materials to generate knowledge.  For instance, the primary means of sharing content in GoodSemester is through Notes.  Although the types of content supported by this feature are fairly standard, the sharing capabilities inherent in the system are not.   Authors can keep notes private, restrict them to course participants, or make them globally available.  If the later is selected, notes are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning that others can use them with proper attribution.  Under ideal conditions, therefore, the note becomes a collaborative item with the initial author able to see changes that others have made and participate in the conversation.  In GoodSemester, the function most commonly seen as analogous to the classroom lecture is made collaborative; however, any attempt to compare GoodSemester’s notes and notepad to LMS content functionality soon falls apart.  It is like comparing apples and oranges; there just isn’t enough in common to make a worthwhile comparison.

This sparks questions about how we can categorize GoodSemester.  Is it an LMS?  I don’t think so and the folks who created the platform agree with me.   In a recent interview with the company founder Jason Rappaport, Michael Feldstein acknowledges the difficulty of categorizing the product.  He also identifies this as an issue typical of today’s marketplace:

And one of the questions platform developers and teachers alike are asking is how much functionality do you really need? Is it just WordPress? Is it WordPress plus Google Docs? Is it WordPress, Google Docs, and grade book? Is it a simple LMS with only a handful of tools and an app store? There are lots of different models.

He’s right, of course.  It seems that most of the new technologies that I’ve evaluated for teaching are designed to do a few things in a near revolutionary fashion rather than all things as expected.  They pit openness, collaboration, and an individual focus again products that define themselves as system.  If there’s one thing that I know about all of the products that I use to facilitate instruction is that they are not systems.

But the question is that whether all of these products that-are-not-systems relate to the systematic mindset that so pervades how institutions of higher education approach technology.  This is never more evident than in LMS selection process.  Since 2002, I’ve participated in these sometimes very long, very drawn out activity that seems to question everything, other than whether the institution really needs an LMS at all.   The fact that an institution needs a system to take on the complex and increasingly vital operations associated with hybrid and online learning almost goes without saying.

I’m not going to quibble with whether the institution needs a system or not, but the burgeoning of tools reinventing how we teach online begs the question of why schools can’t create their own system?  Rather than embarking on a process to select an LMS, it would be so much more cost effective and efficient to pour that energy into building an LMS from all of the pieces and parts abounding in the marketplace.

It is becoming increasingly clear that institutions need to step away from the apparent safety of buying an all-in-one solution and start exploring the possibilities of building what they really need.

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Filed under colleges and universities, education, higher education, Learning Management Systems, Suzanne Kissel

BlackBerry and the Lifecycle of Education Technologies

by Hap Aziz

In today’s issue of The New Yorker online, James Surowiecki has an article titled, “BlackBerry Season,” that is a very interesting take on the decline of the Research In Motion smartphone that dominated the marketplace–before the arrival of the iPhone and then Android phones in the consumer marketplace. Surowiecki writes:

“The easy explanation for what happened to R.I.M. is that, like so many other companies, it got run over by Apple. But the real problem is that the technology world changed, and R.I.M. didn’t. The BlackBerry was designed for businesses. Its true customers weren’t its users but the people who run corporate information-technology departments. The BlackBerry gave them what they wanted most: reliability and security. It was a closed system, running on its own network. The phone’s settings couldn’t easily be tinkered with by ordinary users. So businesses loved it, and R.I.M.’s assumption was that, once companies embraced the technology, consumers would, too.”

I have made similar statements regarding education technology in various entries in this blog (such as Prediction: Commercial Applications Will Drive Education Use… Yet Again), and based on Surowiecki’s article, the sentiment that consumers can drive what was widely considered to be enterprise software systems spans across industry verticals. Let’s parse the above passage from the context of education technology solutions, such as the learning management system, and note the situational similarities:

  • The BlackBerry was designed for business.
  • The learning management system was designed for education.
  • Its true customers weren’t its users but the people who run corporate information-technology departments.
  • Its true customers weren’t students but the faculty and administrators who run higher education institutions.
  • The BlackBerry gave them what they wanted most: reliability and security.
  • The learning management system gave them what they wanted most: control over the institution-student interaction.
  • It was a closed system running on its own network.
  • It was a closed system running on its own network.
  • The phone’s settings couldn’t easily be tinkered with by ordinary users.
  • The learning management system’s layout and configuration couldn’t easily be tinkered with by students.
  • So businesses loved it, and R.I.M.’s assumption was that, once companies embraced the technology, consumers would, too.
  • So education institutions loved it, and the learning management system’s developers assumption was that, once institutions embraced the technology, students would too.

Does anyone else see what I’m seeing? The point I’m making is that so many of the tools that pass for technological innovation within the higher education landscape (and not just learning management systems) are simply solutions developed for the wrong customer. Ultimately, the technology adopted and used effectively in higher education will be the innovations that students bring with them from their own personal lives and empower them to take control of their own education. Clickers, for example, have no place in the classroom when students can easily find clicker apps for their smartphones. Technology only has the power to transform if it is actually embraced–and not forced upon the user for reasons of convenience of management.

Surowiecki concludes his article in this way:

“Companies have quickly come to love consumerization, too: a recent study by the consulting firm Avanade found that executives like the way it keeps workers plugged in all day long. And since workers often end up paying for their own devices, it can also help businesses cut costs. One way or another, consumers are going to have more and more say over what technologies businesses adopt. It’s a brave new world. It’s just not the one that the BlackBerry was built for.”

Breaking this passage down, we understand that higher education institutions should come to love the consumerization of technology in the teaching and learning space, as educators will like the way it keeps students plugged in all day long. And if students end up paying for their own devices, we could see reductions in the cost of resources and materials that institutions need to purchase. It’s clear that students are going to have more say in what technologies higher education institutions adopt. The question is, what companies are built to take advantage of this dynamic?

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Filed under colleges and universities, cost of education, education, education technology, emerging technologies, future technology, Hap Aziz, higher education, Learning Management Systems, smartphones, technology

Using Gaming Systems as Modern Learning Tools

by Martin LaGrow

The advancement of gaming technology from one generation to the next is mind-boggling. It’s hard to believe that in what has become known as the ‘Video Game Crash of 1983,’ the industry virtually fell out of existence, with revenues dropping from $3.2 billion to $100 million in 1985.  The cause of the market crash was also fertile grounds for the solution—a glut of subpar and poorly developed games and systems drove consumers away.  The solution, therefore, was a focus on innovation and quality to woo consumers.  Ultimately, the Nintendo 64 and Sony’s Playstation reinvigorated the market in the mid 1990’s.  Microsoft entered the game and elevated competition with its Xbox in 2001, in side by side competition with the new Nintendo GameCube.  It’s hard to find solid numbers because the definition of video gaming can vary, but most estimates indicate that industry revenue is now over $20 billion a year.  Current developments of the Wii and Xbox 360 prove that companies are still willing to innovate and invest to take their fair share of a very large pie.  Market penetration is significant—sales estimates in the United States would indicate that over half of US households have at least one advanced gaming system. The likelihood of the market compressing again as it did in 1983 is slim to none.  Consoles are advancing in technological capability much faster and in different directions than the home PC, tablet, and mobile device.  Is there an implication in the advancement of these platforms for education?  If LMS designers are open-minded, there certainly could be.

The concept of using a gaming console for learning is certainly not new. Pictured, an Xbox is employed at the AT&T Oaks Course outside San Antonio to help golfers lower their handicaps before actually embarking on the course.  By using the Xbox Kinect, one can imagine that the same Xbox will soon analyze and advise the same golfers about their swing.

Another classic example is the evolution from Rock Band to Rocksmith. Whereas users once plugged a toy push-button guitar into their game consolses, all of their time invested was wasted when it comes to real-world application. With the advent of Rocksmith, the guitar used is now the real deal—meaning gameplay is translated to real-world skills. Though many critics pan the game and its effectiveness, it is only a first incarnation. If the market demands it, new versions will evolve that increase effectiveness.

More academic pursuits are already available.  For example, “Let’s Learn Japanese” (http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Lets-Learn-Japanese-Beginner/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d802585504ac) is an early venture into language learning.  Microsoft also now partnering with Sesame Workshop and National Geographic to pitch the Kinect as a potential tool for ‘embodied learning’ that puts children right into the action (http://content.usatoday.com/communities/gamehunters/post/2011/10/microsoft–kinect–xbox-360-learning/1).

So how can the innovation and advanced interactive features of the current generation of game consoles be harnessed for higher education?  The answer may lie in supplementing online learning environments rather than replacing them. Consider the strengths of the game console as a potential supplemental tool to bolster the weaknesses of the traditional LMS:

Ease of navigation and familiarity to users. Students who grew up interacting in a three-dimensional online world can easily translate those skills to academic challenges.  If navigation through academic software mimics traditional RPG’s with user friendly tools like Kinect and the Wii remote, there is one less hurdle to separate student from success.  The fear of navigating a new online system is summarily removed.

Interconnectivity. Many games rely on the integration of game consoles with internet activity. For example, the Wii version of Club Penguin allows children to transfer their achievements and rewards to their online Club Penguin account, accessed through a web browser.  All that is required is a network connection.  Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure takes it one step further, and records data via RFID to figurines, which can then be synchronized online as well.  The point is, if students can complete exercises, master objectives, and progress sequentially in course material on their game console, that information is very easily submitted and stored to an online LMS.

Standalone functionality.  Every LMS is based on the assumption that students have consistent, high-speed internet connectivity.  Furthermore, a high volume of server capacity is necessary for large institutions to support all students.  Server downtime or network congestion can frustrate students attempting to frantically meet deadlines.  If students can complete drill-and-practice work, view videos, and participate in simulations locally on their game console, and rely on internet connectivity only for the purpose of uploading and recording progress, the demands on network speeds and server capacity are reduced.

Availability and inexpensiveness.  The processing power of an Xbox 360, for the cost of under $300, rivals most laptops (the custom CPU is a triple core processor running at 3.2 GHz) and the graphics power is naturally better (500 MHz GPU with 512 mb GDDR3 RAM).  The amount of downtime due to viruses, hard drive failures, etc. becomes almost a non-issue compared to what students experience with their laptops.  And as mentioned previously, a great many households already have access to game consoles.

I’m not suggesting that playing video games replace scholarly writing or course interaction in online LMS’s.  I am, however, suggesting that we can harness the power of the tools that already exist to provide an exciting and different way to engage students, taking full advantage of technology the PC world has not yet embraced. The PC is being left behind in the way people use technology today, and replaced with tablets, PDA’s, and even game consoles.  It’s time for the world of education to innovate in these different spaces to engage today’s learner.

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Filed under computer games, education, education technology, games, Learning Management Systems, Martin LaGrow, simulation, tablets, technology

Reimagining Online Education, Continued…

by Martin LaGrow

In the past, I have postulated on this blog that the current model of online education is obsolete.  The expression Web 2.0 has been in use for at least eight years to describe the interactive nature of the internet, but the world of academics has made scant effort to embrace it.  While online education relies on dated, asynchronous tools such as email, discussion boards, and drop boxes, even our leisure pursuits have become vastly more interactive and vibrant…think Farmville, Second Life, and even beyond.  When I say we need to think “outside the box,” I am not talking about a tired cliché.  I am talking about that box under your desk that plugs into your monitor. In other words, online education does not have to be confined to your computer. Why not take advantage of the other box sitting next to the TV in virtually every household—the gaming system?

When evaluating any process, device, or system, I like to ask this:  If there was nothing already in existence, no preconceived notion of how it is ‘supposed’ to work, and we invented it today, what would it look like?  Sometimes you can hypothesize about such things and it avails you nothing because you are restricted by what is already in place.  Take, for example, the highway system.  You can’t just erase what’s already in place and start over if you want to redesign the traffic flow of a city, much less the whole country!  But in online education, the same can’t be said.  Nothing prevents us from starting over from scratch, and designing it based on the tools that are in existence today.  We are not committed to the established pathways of the past in a physical sense.  Starting over is scarcely more difficult than pressing the ‘delete’ key!

My next focus in reimagining online education will be to discuss the advantages of utilizing common elements of Web 2.0 and gaming systems simply to spark discussion.  These elements include avatars, interactive environments, RFID interactivity, and the introduction of gaming systems as academic tools.  Today I want to focus on avatars.

The current model of learning management systems is hallmarked by detachment of student, instructor, and peers.  It is possible for students in many online learning platforms to pass a course and earn credit without ever having a real-time conversation with instructor or peers.  Sometimes this gap is bridged by requiring at least one conference call or online session.  Even so, students who prefer to ‘lurk’ can remain as disconnected as they choose.  Teachers who choose not to share personal information or even a profile picture are easily perceived as an uncaring, non-present grading ‘robot’ by students.  It can be difficult for instructors to have a real understanding of who students are, and to take their work in context when they cannot visualize the student as an individual.  Consider teaching thirty or more students in an online course, and having no knowledge of their identity other than a name—and what if you have four Kimberlys in your class?  Yet this matters to students…A distance educator at Boise State University explained that her research about online learning revealed that students frequently complained about having an unengaged or uninvolved instructor as a reason for their dissatisfaction (Magna Publications, “Distance Education Retention: The SIEME Model,” Retirement & Retention, December 2005).  This is partly a byproduct of the flat nature of online instruction.  So how can avatars promote a more personal connection in online coursework?

The avatar, in its most basic form, is a representative incarnation of a person.  Before you participate in virtually any social media interactive game such as Farmville, you must first design your avatar.  The importance of the avatar is not that it is an exact replica of the individual, but that it is a representation of what the individual wishes to present about himself or herself.  This makes it a much less intimidating tool than using a webcam, for example.  The self-conscious student (or instructor for that matter) can share only those elements of identity they are comfortable to share.  Overweight? Bad acne? Gender confused? Afraid of age discrimination?  Your avatar can represent you in a way that you are comfortable.

When using most LMS’s, students and instructors are unaware of the ‘presence’ of others engaged in the course concurrently.  In an interactive room where an avatar represents the presence of participants, interaction between student, peers, and instructor becomes natural.  A student is far more likely to ask the teacher questions if they can ‘see’ the teacher in the room, rather than having to send an email and wonder if it will be received and returned.  By establishing a presence in the room at regular intervals, instructors can create an environment that promotes interactivity.

The web service Voki (http://www.voki.com) provides instructors with the ability to create an avatar and give it a voice.  While this still lacks the interactivity of a robust, multi-participant environment such as Second Life, it may be a beginning point for instructors who are interested in providing a new ‘face’ for students to connect with in their course. If students were to interact the same way, discussion posts could actually become just that—discussion posts, not written papers gleaned and reproduced from a textbook or a website. This tool is still asynchronous, but it represents a step in the right direction—true interaction that fosters the development of personal connection and dialogue between students and instructors.

In my next article, I will elaborate on the potential of gaming systems as academic tools.

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Filed under avatars, computer games, creativity, education technology, future technology, Learning Management Systems, online education, simulation, technology, video, virtual college, virtual identity

Is iAuthor a Learning Management System?

By Dr. Suzanne Kissel

This was the question I found myself asking this weekend as I attempted to move my robust ENG 201: Writing About Literature course into the format.  Compare iAuthor to any LMS feature list and the application fails, miserably.  It doesn’t have a gradebook, discussion forum or chat; it isn’t designed to integrate with any SIS or offer any sort of Single Sign On capabilities.  In fact, it doesn’t take long to realize that comparing iAuthor to any LMS on the market is like comparing apples to oranges — quite as frustrating and quite as futile.

Of course, iAuthor isn’t meant to be an LMS.   It’s an alternative; not a competitor.   iAuthor takes one aspect of putting a course online and does it extremely well.  It manages content.  This makes sense as that is what iAuthor is meant to do.  Arguably, iAuthor puts content online better than any LMS out there.

There’s definitely a learning curve.  After a short weekend investment, I had all of my pre-written content divided into sections and up in an iAuthor template.  The table of contents was created automatically and the use of styles allowed me to change all of the formatting in a single swoop.  This is also one of the main attributes of the template.  Much more time would be required to make my course content unique and a true showcase, but the time I invested was a good enough start.

Here’s a quick snapshot of what the iAuthor interface looks like and what I was able to do in about five hours over the weekend:

In doing one thing, and doing it extraordinarily well, iAuthor exposes another chink in the armor of the traditional LMS.   There are single products out there for almost every function of the LMS; they do it and do it better.   This is one reason why some contend that the days of the LMS are numbered.  iAuthor does a great job of presenting content, even more so because it allows for the seamless incorporation of Creative Commons and other open materials.

However, the reason why iAuthor’s powers of disruption are limited is that it is tied to the iPad.  In order to invest the time it takes to learn the full capabilities of iAuthor, you had better be sure that your students have access to this technology.  As far as academic use is concerned, the fate of one seems tied to the fate of the other.  All we can do now, is to keep testing the viability of the iAuthor + iPad in the classroom to see if the utility of the two together is enough to overcome the cost.

In the coming months, we will be posting on one experiment of designing a course on iAuthor and using that course in the face to face classroom.  Stay tuned… it’s going to be an exciting ride!

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Filed under eBooks, education course content, education technology, iBooks, Learning Management Systems, online education, Suzanne Kissel