Tag Archives: Learning Management System

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

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

MIT to Open Source Its Online Learning Platform, MITx

by Hap Aziz

Ten years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began offering online course materials free over the Internet through its OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative. The OCW program allows people to view MIT course content and lectures online at no cost to the user (under specific licensing considerations). MIT’s intent is to make “course materials that are used in the teaching of almost all undergraduate and graduate subjects available on the web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world,” and to “serve as a model for university dissemination of knowledge in the Internet age” (source).

This week, MIT announced the MITx initiative, which is an open-source platform that will allow students to take MIT course content online, and even obtain certificate credentials. The MITx platform will be made available to other institutions for use (K-12 as well as higher education), and outside developers will be able to make enhancements to the platform as well. From the MIT news site:

“Creating an open learning infrastructure will enable other communities of developers to contribute to it, thereby making it self-sustaining,” said Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). “An open infrastructure will facilitate research on learning technologies and also enable learning content to be easily portable to other educational platforms that will develop” (source).

MIT’s stated purpose is to improve education at MIT as well as around the world, and the platform itself will be used in the institute’s ongoing research regarding online teaching and learning. However, MITx could represent much more to other academic institutions, especially those that are seeking alternatives to their current course management systems. MIT intends to make the OCW software infrastructure free to educational institutions, and it will work to establish a framework for institutions and other parties to contribute to the improvement of platform.

There are two threads running through MIT’s announcement. 1) There is the release of MIT-developed course content that learners around the world will be able to take, and they will be able to earn certification (though not from MIT directly). This is not intended to replace an actual MIT education, and although participation in the courses will be free of charge, the credentialing will involve a modest fee. Mark Smithers discusses some of the ramifications of this on his blog. 2) The platform for online content delivery is what MIT will be opening up and providing at no cost to other institutions, that may then utilize their own developed content. Indeed, a cottage industry will likely form around the development of robust course materials for the MITx platform. The question that immediately comes to mind is: “How does the MITx platform compare to systems such as Blackboard or Pearson’s new and “free” OpenClass software?” Unfortunately, that’s difficult to answer right now, as the software has not yet been released, thought that should happen early into 2012.

We can, however, consider the question from the broader context of considering “new” course or learning management system solutions for those that are currently in place at an institution. It is instructive to ask and answer the following three questions whenever the possibility of change comes up:

  1. What are the underlying issues driving the desire for change at an institution? Often, the desire to bring on (or at least examine) a new solution is not so much because of the new solution’s feature set or capabilities, but it is because of the perceived lack of capability or functionality within the current system for meeting existing needs.
  2. What are the logistical challenges to replacing or integrating a secondary system into an institution’s existing infrastructure? Often those innovators at an institution interested in driving positive change are not fully aware of (or have not considered) the potential and very significant disruption to the learner population. When surveying their learner populations, institutions commonly find that students are most interested in “consistency of technology implementation” in their online courses and programs.
  3. What will be the impact on institutional resources in replacing the current or implementing a secondary system? While “open source” or “free” are terms that give the impression of little investment required, there are often significant total cost of ownership issues that should be examined thoroughly before making any decisions, and this examination must include both academic as well as information technology support perspectives.

I admit that I am very intrigued by the MITx initiative, and I will be following closely the developments as they unfold in early 2012. The Academic Services team at SunGard Higher Education will be taking an in-depth look at both segments of the initiative, and we should have a detailed review shortly into the new year.

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Filed under colleges and universities, education, Learning Management Systems, online education

Open Sourcing Data.gov Will Facilitate Worldwide Educational Positioning System Adoption

by Hap Aziz

Yesterday on the White House website, Steven VanRoekel (U.S. CIO) and Aneesh Chopra (U.S. CTO) posted an announcement that the Obama administration has begun to release open source components of the Data.gov platform so that other governments may also launch their own versions of the Data.gov repository as part of the Open Government Partnership. The point of the Partnership is to improve government transparency, and currently there are 46 countries participating in the effort, and this first release is a result of the collaborative work of the United States and India on the platform.

This open source code release also presents an expanded opportunity for the Educational Positioning System (EPS) to become a truly global guide for academic decision-making. While the original EPS concept made no specific reference to scope of services, it has always been our desire to see its service area expand beyond national boundaries. As the travel realities of a global society become more widespread, the ability to share academic information across countries becomes as meaning as sharing that information across educational institutions and organizations with the United States.

The foundation for a successful EPS initiative involves data and metadata format standardization, certainly, as well as access to warehoused data in repositories such as Data.gov and the National Student Clearinghouse. Individual Learning Management System vendors will need to look to the cloud as a both the source and ultimate destination of all student-related content from transcripts to e-portfolio artifacts. Through the work of such organizations as the IMS Global Learning Consortium, we continue to build interest and momentum in “EPS 1.0” for our most basic, initial system design.

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Filed under Data.gov, Educational Positioning System, Learning Management Systems, Open Government Platform