OK, this was worth the wait. I have video of Anya Kamenetz’s keynote, which set the tone for the Sakai Conference 2010 in some important ways. I also have a short video interview with her, some related video content from Dan Pink, and of course, analysis of what all this means for educational technology in general and for the design of Sakai 3 in particular.
Be warned: It will take you over 90 minutes to consume all the content from this post. Not counting post-consumption rumination.1
Let’s start with the keynote. If you have not read Anya’s book yet, then this provides a good overview of her argument. And if you have read her book, the keynote provides a significantly evolved and refined version of her argument. The video starts with an introduction to the conference by Lois Brooks. It’s a great overview to some things that are going on in the community but isn’t about the keynote itself. My introduction starts at around 10:30 and Anya’s talk itself starts at around 23 minutes in:
There’s quite a lot that could be said about this keynote, but I want to hone in on the three areas she mentions (at around 45:30 in the video) that need attention to foster the growth of DIY U (which I’m increasingly inclined to think of as simply a trendier and more provocative name for open education):
Each of these elements has implications for both instructional technology and instructional design.
Let’s start with content, which appears on the surface to be the easiest one to deal with. If you want to make educational content available for use at low cost or no cost to all students the first thing you have to address is access in the most basic sense of the term. You have to get it out from behind the LMS login and into the public internet. One of the design goals of Sakai 3 is to remove the assumption that all course content must always be private to the course and allow participants to publish their content (which is, after all, theirs) to the wider web. Next, you want content to be findable. At first approximation, Sakai 3 deals with this too. Since everything will be stored in a content repository, everything will be taggable and searchable. Of course, it will be important to get the implementations right, but the foundational architecture is there (unlike in current-generation LMSs) and there certainly are good search and tagging design patterns on the web that can be copied. Next up is import and export. Since Sakai 3 will be built on top of a standards-based content repository, it should be able to support a variety of generic content exchange standards such as RSS/Atom, WebDAV, JCR, and CMIS, and adding education-specific standards like Common Cartridge shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Mix in a robust, widget-friendly user interface with OpenSocial baked in, and you can mash up content from lots of external sites relatively easily.
So far, so good. But anybody who lived through the Learning Object Repository craze knows that making educational content findable and re-usable is not as easy as it sounds. You may be able to find plenty of course content about John Locke. But it’s harder to find a good lesson plan on John Locke’s novel use of the word “person” as distinct from “soul.” And it’s harder still to find content on Locke’s use of the word “person” in the context of a course like “Individualism and the Novel.” Chances are that if you can find anything at all, you’re going to have to adapt it. The problem here is part technology, part teaching practice, and part the inherent variability and importance of context. Add to that picture the possibility that your content might be accessed by a young person in Soweto who is doing some DIY study on her own, and you’re in a real mess. As an author, how do you anticipate and support all the many different possible uses and contexts of your content? How do you make it easily adoptable and adaptable? And if people do adapt it, how do you deal with all the variations of the same piece of content? Of course, there doesn’t have to be one solution to address all of needs and challenges. The point is that there’s still a lot of hard work to be done, in both technology and practice, to making content accessible in meaningful ways for the full spectrum of open education uses. It’s an area that merits continued focused attention.
Which brings us to socialization. This one is relatively broad and could mean a lot of different things. For example, it could mean learning help-seeking behavior, which is a skill that many at-risk students appear to lack. Support and encouragement of help-seeking behavior means giving students (and their teachers and advisors) alerts that encourage them to get help when their performance is slipping across a range of metrics (e.g., class logins, grades, homework assignment submissions, participation in class discussion, etc.). What you need for this is event monitoring that can be hooked up to some sort of analytics which are, in turn, hooked up to an alerts system. Sakai 3 has some of the raw materials for this. It has a very robust and extensible event messaging system, for example. In contrast to many current-generation LMSs, where you have to wade through (often huge) SQL tables of everything that everyone is doing to find the activities you’re looking for, Sakai 3 lets you catch these activities as they happen by building listeners for just the events you want and then storing just those events. It also has the framework for a good messaging system. But at this point, it’s just the foundation, and there don’t appear to be any of these sorts of early warning tools planned in the milestones for the coming year.
Of course, socialization can also mean more of the Web 2.0 collaboration kind of thing. Anya has some very interesting comments in the interview below regarding the new literacy required to navigate different types of social networks with the different levels of intimacy they engender and the different kinds of interactions that they tend to support. But on an even more basic level, there’s the idea that collaboration is key, and that collaboration across a large group—including people that you don’t know—can be a very successful learning strategy. Once again, the ability to make anything public, which is baked into Sakai 3, is part of the answer. But I think it is also important to think hard about how to make collaboration and its results visible, so that students can model good behavior for each other and be recognized for being good partners. And if we’re talking about open education, then “visible” means visible outside of just the walls of the college (assuming students want it to be visible). We know that Sakai 3 will emphasize academic social networking, and we know there has been some research done at Cambridge about just what productive social networking looks like in an academic context, but there is still a lot of design work left to be done for Sakai 3’s social networking capabilities.
There’s much, much more to say about socialization, but I’ll save it for future posts.
Next up is accreditation, which Anya points out is really one tool in a broader category of reputation builders. Degree credit is a compact (though not necessarily accurate or particularly useful) way of assuring strangers that a person has acquired certain knowledge and skills. There are other ways of signaling reputation and accomplishment in an academic context, of course. The portfolio is one. The Sakai community has a long history with this approach, having merged OSPortfolio with core Sakai quite some time ago. Sakai 3 should bring some new capabilities to the table in this regard. Having content be owned by the people who create it, rather than by the course instance that disappears at the end of the semester, is one big step in the right direction, as is pervasive and flexible content sharing. H.E.C. in Montreal has done some really impressive proof-0f-concept work in on Sakai 3.
Beyond ePortfolios, there’s the general idea that your social network profile in an academic context should contain references (and links, where possible) to the work you’ve done. Links should get added automatically when possible rather than having to be maintained manually. And yet again, because we’re talking about openness, it will be important not only to make the profile accessible outside of the login but also to make it exportable. Ultimately, we may need some sort of XML or RDF format for the digital CV. Sakai 3 shows promise in all of these areas by providing the necessary foundational capabilities upon which these affordances can be built, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
So that’s a good deal for an instructional technology development community to think about already, just from one slice of the keynote. But I was lucky enough to be able to conduct a short interview with Anya afterward, during which she dropped some more gems:
(As an aside, the LMS I was trying to think of is Bodington. Apologies to Aggie Booth and the gang.)
The part I want to focus on (around 3:25 on the video) is where I ask Anya to discuss the differences between writing an academic paper and writing an article for Fast Company. She identifies three differences:
- Journalism has a different disciplinary approach than academic writing, so she writes differently.
- As a journalist, she knows that her writing can have an impact on the real world, and that motivates her.
- By getting the article out in public, she starts a conversation with a wide range of people that helps her learn more about the topic. (In other words, the publication of the article is the beginning of her education on the topic, where the turning in of a class assignment is typically the end of it.)
Try to keep these three points in the back of your mind while you watch this video of Dan Pink discussing motivation:
According to the research that Pink cites, people are motivated to work hard by a desire for three things:
These overlap with Anya’s list in interesting ways. Certainly, she displays passion for her craft as a journalist. It’s important for learners (including but not limited to students) to feel like they are getting better at something, that they are learning some sort of craft. It helps a great deal if that something they are getting better at is meaningful to them and linked to their sense of identity, i.e., that it has a purpose for them. In Anya’s case, she wants to have an impact on public discourse around important topics.When you feel like you’re getting skilled at something that is important and meaningful, we have a term for that. We call it a vocation or, to go back to the meaning of the original Latin term, a calling.
The item on Dan’s list that’s not on Anya’s, autonomy, seems potentially relevant too, even though she didn’t mention it. I suspect it matters when she gets to pick the topics she is going to write about. She may get some assignments, but she as carved out a “beat” for herself and probably has some say in the stories that she pursues. And finally, the item on Anya’s list that doesn’t show up on Dan’s is also interesting—the conversation. Part of the value there may go to purpose, in the sense that she knows she is reaching an audience because they talk back. Part of it may go to mastery, in the sense that the conversation brings new information and new opportunities for her to become more expert. But I also wonder if it isn’t something of an inherent motivator. We are social creatures, after all.
It seems to me that one of the tricks to getting open education to work for a broad audience is to find a way to align the learning experiences with intrinsic motivations like these. Because once you take away the extrinsic motivators like grades, deadlines, approval of authority figures like teachers, and so on, people are going to be a lot more prone to drop out of their self-directed educational programs. Some of that is OK; passion and drive can often be good guides for where we need to focus our energy (or not). But particularly for students who never learned the skills of self-education, or who never acquired much self-confidence, having their educational experiences structured in ways that help them connect emotionally with the work is pretty critical. And maybe it’s critical for all of us.
I suspect that a lot of the work that needs to be done in this area is in instructional design rather than instructional technology, but it’s worth asking ourselves how technology can help scaffold learning experiences to foster a sense of autonomy, increasing mastery, and greater purpose. This is a theme I will be returning to in future posts.
- Did I or did I not warn you about impending blogorrhea? I believe I did. [↩]