Towards a Connectivist ePortfolio

English: This is Juniper Hall at Humboldt Stat...

English: This is Juniper Hall at Humboldt State University. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am reviewing eportfolio systems and processes for faculty at Humboldt State University, and I am concerned with how little has changed in this field over the last ten years. There are some good ideas out there around assessment and reflective practice, but the technology seems to waver between program management tools that are completely user-hostile to website building tools that wind up being little more than a silo or repository. The worst ones are the ones that are included with an LMS that seem to disappear after the student leaves school. And yet, so much is happening in technology and education that should be shaping this method of assessment and the tools around it. For instance, Connectivism, the basic learning theory of networked knowledge, web 2.0 (as old as that is), and social media seem to be largely absent from learning design and assessment in the eportfolio world. There are some nods to it in some packages, like a few that let student import a Twitter feed. But social media is being treated like just another artifact or piece of content. Social media applied to the assessment of eportfolios can measure student engagement. Student engagement, which has been shown to be the key factor in student success in online courses, is not assessed or evaluated in current eportfolio systems.

I have been interested in eportfolios since the mid-90s when I became interested in online teaching and learning. ePortfolios solve a lot of problems: authentic assessment, for instance. Courses are plagued with rote memorization, multiple choice tests, canned essay assignments with no connection to previous learning – assessments that actually undermine learning. The faculty who rely the most on high-stakes testing are, for very good reasons, the ones most concerned with student cheating. ePortfolios do away with these issues because the student is part of the decision making process as to what is assessed and how. When eportfolio assessment is done right, the student is also negotiating with the instructor how the portfolio should be evaluated.

One of the benefits of an eportfolio is that it can be a tool for professional development and life-long learning. Faculty will often speak of portfolios as static objects that contain artifacts of learning. I think that a Connectivist portfolio is one that is created in such a way that it becomes obvious to an evaluator how the student created knowledge in the networks in which the eportfolio is not just a static silo but a dynamic node. The kinds of questions we can ask of a connectivist portfolio are:

  • Does the student network with the other students?
  • Is there any evidence of peer engagement?
  • Is there any evidence of engagement with subject matter experts?
  • Does the portfolio link to other networks?
  • Does the student seek feedback from others?
  • Is there evidence of peer evaluation?

Each one of these questions can be unpacked differently according to the tools used, the subjects that are being learned or taught. Reflective practice and writing learning reflections are important pieces of a portfolio – that is a connection with the self in learning – but the portfolio can also reflect the wider network where learning takes place.

What kind of rubric would be use to evaluate a Connectivist portfolio?

I am interested in what you think would be good questions to ask for assessing a Connectivist portfolio. Comment below or find me on Twitter “@geoffcain

Posted in connectivism | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Siemens and Downes on “Preparing for the Digital University”

Stephen Downes speaking at D2L09.

Stephen Downes speaking at D2L09. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For some great week-end reading in the edu world, I recommend George Siemens et al.’s “Preparing for the Digital University: a review of the history, and current state of distance, blended, and online learning” which I first read about in Downes blog where he gave his first take on the study. This was followed by this Twitter exchange. George Siemens countered with “On Research and Academic Diversity” and this was also met with a more in-depth critique by Stephen Downes in his followed-up with “Research and Evidence” where he discusses problems with the research in depth. The study and exchanges are important reading because I think they speak to this time as a critical moment in the history of online learning. The debates we are having today about open education and the role of the commercial sector and traditional education are going to shape what happens in education for the next twenty years. We should never be comfortable in the field of education. Our discussions and debates should be as rigorous as anything that you will find in Physics or Medicine.

I understand a lot of Downes frustrations with the state of education research. I get annoyed with the constant use of studies that have such small sample sizes. I use surveys and research in my work as a Director of Academic Technology and I would never make a decision, much less a generalization on a sample size of 30 subjects. The last survey of our students I conducted had a response rate of 1700 out of 9000 which nearly accounted for every student that had recently taken an online class. I work very closely with our Office of Institutional Research. Not that I really care, but the irony is that work like this would be ignored by traditional journals because I am sure we are considered “alt-ac” for not having the right credentials.

I am also concerned about the historical perspective and lack of non-traditional academics and practitioners missing from this study, but I think I understand a little of how that works. What happened and continues to happen around Connectivist MOOCs and open education in general in the last 10 years is revolutionary. We have an unprecedented opportunity to open education up to more people around the world than ever before and solve real world problems. But to do that through traditional education paths, one would have to participate in everything that stands in the way of change. Traditional educational

English: George Siemens, David A. Wiley, and M...

English: George Siemens, David A. Wiley, and Michael Wesch at TEDxNYED. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

paths, including exclusive institutions like tenure and traditional edu publishing are not going to promote the changes needed. Downes says that some of the conclusions of the report are “empty and obvious” (such as the need for instructional design for student engagement) and that is because we have been discussing that for years in practitioner spaces and blogs – it is not real, of course, unless it is tied to a traditional study, not matter how strong or weak that study might be. And the academic/corporate “studies are not even asking question relevant to education – they tend to focus on “sustainability” and growth. In other words: money. There is a corporate narrative about what MOOCs are and how they got that way that is well rewarded by corporations and traditional education institutions.

Discussions like this are important for the academic community. The attitude of “why can’t we all just get along?” has no place in the academic community: validity of arguments come from questioning and the constant, rigorous challenge of debate. I have an enormous amount of respect for Siemens and Downes: their past collaborations have brought forth some of the most innovative thinking and practices in online education, and I expect nothing less from a critical debate between the two.

Posted in MOOC | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Siemens and Downes on “Preparing for the Digital University”

It’s not what you think, its what you feel…

English: Chris Anderson is the curator of the ...

Chris Anderson is the curator of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference Français : Chris Anderson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

…and darling, you feel marvelous, or inspired, or funny, or persuasive, or jaw-dropping…at least that is how the TED Talks are being promoted on the Apple TV app. TED is entertainment – if you learn something from any of the videos great, but if the video is not entertaining, it won’t be up there. Why is that on my TV? Because I haven’t shut it off yet. Someone sent me a vaguely relevant “this video changes everything” link that was somewhat interesting so I had not gotten around to going into the Apple TV preferences and shutting it off. Yes, you can do that. I only have nine or ten channels or services there. I use it mostly to get media from my computer to my TV, but anyway: I am, as usual, really annoyed by how TED presents information. It is a strange form of entertainment. I don’t mind that people want to feel a sense of wonder. I am all for that. But lets not mistake it for learning or knowledge. One of the things that these talks pander to is our sense that learning about how the world works is a difficult thing. Getting a real idea about how to solve problems is tricky. But along comes a TED Talk and you can feel good about what you think you know about world hunger or quantum mechanics in eight minutes. Real knowledge about something takes time, work, and engagement, no one can give that to you. I hope that no one is going to this Apple TV app thinking that they want to learn something in particular because it is categorized not by what someone would want to know but what one wants to feel. I used to encounter this often with freshmen, and I still encounter it on Facebook. Someone will post something on Facebook with a photo or data that is false, I call them on it, and they say “the data may be wrong, but the issue is so dire, we can’t quibble about that now.” On top of that, I know some smart, knowledgable, innovative people who have given TED Talks but you won’t find them up there because even though they are thinking in ways light years ahead of our time, they just weren’t jaw-droppingly entertaining enough.

Posted in TED Talks | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on It’s not what you think, its what you feel…

DIY 60s Fun from The Amateur Scientist

Masthead of Scientific American Volume 14, Iss...

Masthead of Scientific American (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am cleaning out some files this weekend and I found a xerox of a chapter from a the book “The Scientific American Book of Projects for The Amateur Scientist” by C.L. Strong. Geek alert – Vannevar Bush wrote the introduction but he wrote a lot for Scientific American so that is no real surprise

For less than the average cost of a set of golf clubs, you can equip yourself for playing with electrons — the minute “spheres” surrounding the atom. With this apparatus you can transmute the elements, alter the properties of some common materials and, incidentally, learn much at first hand about the structure of matter. F. B. Lee, a chemical engineer and faculty member of the Erie County Technical Institute in Buffalo, N. Y., tells how to build and operate the machine. Some safety measures are suggested on page 359.”

I love the DIY spirit behind this article, but is this really a good idea? There is an incredible faith here in the safety of being around radioactive materials, high voltage and huge amounts of mercury! It is an amazing device and I talked to a physics teacher about assembling something like it in the 1980s and after looking at the plans, he said that it was far too dangerous for amateurs: it uses a vaporized mercury, there is no discussion of the hazards of x-rays (especially at the “peep hole” where experimenters can watch materials get bombarded with electrons). There is a wooden box that houses the gallon glass jugs of mercury vapor in case of implosion. This sounds like a great “Honey, there is something I have to tell you about the basement” moment just waiting to happen. I was interested in this because I was wondering if experiments like this could be made safer by using modern electronic circuits. At the same time, I had discovered Hamlet, English Literature, Computer Programming, the TRS 80, and Jacqui Goldstein so that pretty much finished off my integrated circuit nuclear science career!

Van de Graaf Generators

Mercury Vapor Pumps

Posted in DIY, science | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on DIY 60s Fun from The Amateur Scientist

The Art & Technique of Education

Vermeer Melkmeid

Vermeer Melkmeid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just watched the film “Tim’s Vermeer” which is a fascinating exploration of art and craftsmanship. An inventor and video pioneer, Tim Jenison, sets out to solve the mystery of how Vermeer painted nearly photo-realistic paintings at a time when artists in the Netherlands were still working out the basics of their craft. I have written here before on the fascination for optics, mirrors, and the camera obscura in the Northern Renaissance in my discussion of Svetlana Alper’s The Art of Describing.  Jenison finds that Vermeer probably used a series of mirrors to project an image onto a canvas and then used another mirror to view his painting and painstakingly match the tones in the reflection to the image he was creating on the canvas. Jenison reproduces one of Vermeer’s rooms and then sets about to make a Vermeer painting with no formal training in art. His thesis answers questions like: why are there no drawings underneath the paint? and why are there optical distortions in his paintings that only happen with lenses? It is a fascinating film. And then the questions that Jenison is concerned with include questions about what then is art?

Jenison’s experiment used Vermeer’s composition, palette and techniques but is what Jenison produced really art? It is not a Vermeer because Vermeer choosing what he did constitutes a huge part of his art and Jenison made his choices based on making a copy. Jenison could not do what he did without the technology but then again, maybe Vermeer couldn’t either. It is an interesting question.

Somehow, to the modern Romantic sensibility, art married to technology is not “real” art. But I don’t find any of this shocking at all. We dealt with this around photography a hundred and fifty years ago or so. I think that despite the application of technology, and maybe because of it, Vermeer is just as much an artist as Da Vinci or Basquiat. In fact, the Greek word for “art” (τέχνη) and its Latin equivalent (ars) do not signify “fine art” in our modern sense, but were applied to all kinds of human endeavors such as craft, design, or fabrication. Artists are apprenticed in workshops not to learn how to be “artists” in our sense of the term, but to grind minerals into pigments and make paint, to stretch and treat canvas, to learn how to manage the different brushes – in other words, art was something that you did. Vermeer is an artist because he is first a craftsman, and then he hacks the current technology to produce pictures with a visual depth never before experienced.

We experience this phenomena with teaching and learning as instructional designers. Instructional design is often thought of as a technique and not the art of teaching. That instructional design is about tools and not relationships. Teachers sometimes say to me that learning only takes place between the connection between the teacher and the student – everything else is superfluous or gets in the way. When I ask them if this learning takes place in a classroom, they say yes. Does the classroom facilitate the relationship or inhibit it? Are there good arrangements of desks and poor arrangements? Can a white board help those conversations? And they get the idea that yes, even face-to-face classes rely on technology. It is not the technology that is doing the teaching. And technology can be used to facilitate bad teaching, and I resent that because the first thing faculty do is blame the technology! A great example of this is to look at the current state of the conversations around MOOCs.

But another way to look at technology and teaching is to ask one’s self what makes teaching successful? What is good teaching? A few of the measures we use is engagement and interactivity – that is, does the course encourage the interaction between the teacher-student, student-student, and student-content. There is decades of research on the connection between interactivity and student success in courses both online and face-t0-face. Combine this with research on active learning strategies and an instructional designer can start to see a natural fit with teaching and the use of technology in the classroom or in online classes to facilitate that level of engagement. This technology does not make anyone less of a teacher anymore than Vermeer’s mirrors made him any less of an artist.

Posted in Instructional Design | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Art & Technique of Education

Teaching in WordPress

WordPress logo blue

WordPress Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am very interested in this development, Teaching with WordPress. Learning management systems have always been considered a necessary evil at colleges where I have worked, but as the internet evolves, there seems to be no real reason to lock down teaching and learning. I am looking forward to meeting and working with instructors interested in open learning.


Posted in teachingWP | Comments Off on Teaching in WordPress

Yes, MOOCs Still Matter

I am sometimes forwarded articles from the Comical of Higher Ed and elsewhere that proclaim the death of the MOOC, that they are not ready for primetime, or that they are better for professional development. All of which I find very funny. The so-called “hype cycle” has played through the press, the entrepreneurs all got their cold dose of reality, and now I think that we can get back to the real work of teaching and learning online, using a wide-variety of platforms and methods, including MOOCs.

English: Photo of tile mosaic, Iowa Hall, Univ...

Photo of tile mosaic, Iowa Hall, University of Iowa (Wikipedia)

In the meantime, I am taking a MOOC on “How Writers Write Poetry” from the University of Iowa, and another one on the art, culture and religion of the Alhambra from Universidad de Granada (La Alhambra: historia, arte y patrimonio). The one from U de G is being taught in Spanish and English. Incidentally, I can’t think of a better time in the history of the West to be promoting courses that increase a greater understanding of Islamic Culture and our past pollinations with the Al-Andalus cultures. And this is what education is supposed to do. This is why we got involved in education in the first place: we have a chance, through education, to make a difference, to shift out-moded world-views, to effect positive change by bringing learners a broader perspective on the world.

I don’t really buy into the Gartner “hype cycle” idea. I have written about that here before – it doesn’t predict anything, it is not a “cycle,” and there is no way to measure anything with it. It is basically a valueless subjective claim about any process or technology. With that said, I thought the expectations of MOOCs when the corporations started to get involved were just ridiculous. What public college would think that putting classes online were going to be a cash cow? That myth was debunked in the late 90s if not earlier. One should not go into education expecting to get rich quick. There must be some other reason people go into education – like they believe it is worth doing for some other reason besides money. Online classes (including MOOCs) are just another delivery method. Just like face-to-face courses, they can be designed well or poorly. As the corporations eventually learned, design and support is everything. What software you use or how you deliver videos are nearly irrelevant compared to design and support. As soon as they figured out that MOOCs are real work, they require careful instructional design, and that the students need access to the same kind of support that students need in face-to-face courses (or even in “traditional” online courses), they basically abandoned the idea and declared MOOCs as okay for professional development but not “real” courses. Good. Lets get the corporations out and the teachers back in! Lets get back to the true roots of MOOCs – Connectivist MOOCs with real engagement and interaction rather than video collections online. Now that we have gotten the ridiculous expectations out of the way we can get back to teaching and learning.

Posted in MOOC | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Yes, MOOCs Still Matter

Science and Biology Open Textbooks from BCcampus

English: Coat of arms of British Columbia

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sue Schmidt, the NANSLO/CHEO project coordinator for WICHE sent along some great links to openly licensed science and biology textbooks from BCcampus. I think the books and the model of peer review they are following could become of particular interest to us here at Humboldt State University.

BCcampus is a publicly funded organization that uses information technology to connect the expertise, programs, and resources of all British Columbia post-secondary institutions under a collaborative service delivery framework.  BCcampus is also one of North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO) partners.  See for more information on NANSLO.

For its member institutions, BCcampus has identified a number of open textbooks that align with the top 40 subject areas in British Columbia and placed links to them on their website –  These textbooks have been reviewed by faculty experts in the science disciplines.

As part of the Consortium for Healthcare Education Online (CHEO) initiative funded by a U.S. Department of Labor TAACCCT grant, BCcampus was asked to review and identify several textbooks that could be used for pre-requisite science courses taught in the allied health field.   Here are links those textbooks that BCcampus engaged CHEO instructors in reviewing.  All were highly rated by these instructors and those it works with in British Columbia.

In addition, BCcampus suggested several others that might be useful in allied health:

I will be interested in talking to BCcampus about their system of peer review and how that works with their faculty. Watch this space…

Posted in Open educational resources, Open textbooks | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Science and Biology Open Textbooks from BCcampus

Putting the Design into Instructional Design

1st ed. cover by Paul Rand

1st ed. cover by Paul Rand (Wikipedia)

“To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.”

– Paul Rand

Paul Rand’s Thoughts on Design is back in print and it should be. He has a lot of interesting things to say about design and the design process. This is a good time of year to go back to this because this is the time of year I most often get the questions “what is an instructional designer?” and “why do I need an instructional designer?” I come at the design world through the back door. In the mid-90s, some universities I worked for supposed that if instruction was to take place on like, we had better start teaching instructors HTML and Photoshop. This sort of made sense at the time: the web can be a visual medium, so understanding the principles of visual composition and visual learning together would be a good place to start. I didn’t like a lot of the web design books I saw because the color schemes, fonts and images all seemed to come from video games. One book that I used a lot was the Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams. I used this book as my quick introduction – it is still a useful book. I then thought, why let the programmers determine how the web should be presented? What can we learn from how we engage with the print world? What can be applied to the web and what can’t? I used to use social realist images in my posters for the tutoring center because I figured that they worked for the WPA in the 30s, why wouldn’t they work for me now? And they did, they were arresting images that made people stop and look. I began to read more about design. I know that there are faculty out there who shudder at the thought of looking to Madison Ave. for help with designing online courses, but think about it: how effective would the outcome of an advertisement be if all it did was communicate the bare information in text? But by using graphic design and typography, the best advertising asks you to engage with the information. It asks you to ask questions and to want to know more. Shouldn’t that happen in an online classroom? The best lecturers do the same: they lecture in ways that engage the students, lead them somewhere, and compels them (through curiosity) to want to know more.

Don’t get me wrong, advertising is certainly an ethically fraught enterprise. But in the absence of face-to-face interaction, design considerations, at all levels, are paramount in online courses. This includes graphics and layout – I don’t separate them from the pedagogical concerns of traditional instructional design because the visual elements become another voice in the fugue. Attention to images, fonts, layout, and graphics help students remember your course and the course material. Students begin to use the images and icons as mnemonic devices that organize the course and the information.

There is/was a movement in education around “design thinking” which I know is sometimes criticized. I don’t think there is a one-sized fits all ideal process, but I am not one of those critics – anything that gets instructional designers, teachers (and sometimes even students!) together at the table to discuss teaching and learning is a good thing.

Posted in design | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Putting the Design into Instructional Design

More on Academic Honesty…

De Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have posted on the topic of academic honesty previously here. I know that some of my colleagues have solved this problem or have at least been addressing this since the mid-90s, so it would seem unusual to get a posting like this on this particular blog. But many instructors, especially instructors new to online learning, are very concerned about cheating. This is an issue that is preventing some college programs from going online. As I wrote in my previous post, project-based learning and portfolio assessment solves a lot of these issues, but we still have professors using high-stakes multiple choice tests as a significant part of their courses (specially those using canned courses from publishers). Interestingly enough, we are not really dealing with actual cases of online cheating in these discussions but the perception of online cheating. And the common wisdom (the collected prejudices of our time) take it that online cheating is more common than in the face-to-face classes. But there is a great study out there on this issue by George Watson and James Sottile called “Cheating in the Digital Age: Do Students Cheat More In Online Courses?” They questioned 635 students about academic honesty. In the study, the students overwhelmingly believe that more cheating goes on in online courses yet when they ask the students if they have cheated in a face-to-face class 32.1% said that they did. When asked if they cheated in an online class, 32.7% said that they did. In other words, there was no significant difference between the rates of cheating online versus face-to-face.

Again, project-based learning and portfolios can really make a huge difference. Not just with the cheating issue, but in providing academically rigorous, authentic assessment in any discipline.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on More on Academic Honesty…