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The Blog on Emerging Academic Technologies


July 2010 Archives

Educause just released a brief on alternatives to the traditional learning management system ,"7 things you should know about LMS alternatives." This short, serialized paper discusses how some institutions and instructors use tools like WordPress, Slideshare, podcasts, VoiceThread, and Diigo to "fill the gap" created by a conventional course management system. While there are certainly disadvantages to relying exclusively on third party applications--security, continuity, reliability, and integration, for instance--these tools are evolving more quickly than conventional course management systems. The Educause authors suggest that "the practice of augmenting a standard, centralized LMS is a trend that can be expected to continue among faculty members."

When course management systems first appeared in higher education almost 15 years ago, they represented one of the first points of entry to the web for many instructors. They offered a relatively easy way to put material online and promised the opportunity to create computer mediated interactions among students. Two recent studies (Griffiths & Graham, 2009; Lonn & Teasley, 2009) have suggested, however, that the vast majority of current CMS users (at Brigham Young and the University of Michigan) primarily engage the content delivery and broadcast functions of their course management systems rather than the more interactive tools. If these two institutional studies are indicative of a larger pattern of use, it might confirm the Educause assumption that instructors are seeking alternatives to the LMS for creating rich learning environments.

Griffiths, M. E., & Graham, C. R. (2009). Patterns of user activity in the different features of the Blackboard CMS across all courses for an academic year at Brigham Young University. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(2). Retrieved from

Lonn, S., & Teasley, S. D. (2009). Saving time or innovating practice: Investigating perceptions and uses of Learning Management Systems. Computers & Education, 53(3). 686-694.

7 things you should know about LMS alternatives (2010). Educause Retrieved from

The End of Forgetting

The Web Means the End of Forgetting is an excellent piece in today's New York Times about the perils of web on professional life. Jeffrey Rosen's article has the broadest and deepest scope of the many articles I've seen about the problem.

It's often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances -- no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you've done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.

What "privacy" means in the age of Facebook has been an item of both discussion and argument among our group. I think that "privacy" isn't exactly the right word, since much of the problem is the ubiquity and longevity of things people do, after all, "in public." However, there is definitely something akin to privacy that has been lost: the ability to keep our selves separate, and to leave some selves behind. I think Rosen hits the nail on the head when he describes the problem as an identity crisis.

For young people inclined to be silly or careless with their web persona, this can even put their future in jeopardy. Even more cautious folks can be photographed and identified at their weakest moment. For every job interview, they may as well show up drunk and wearing a lampshade hat, since their employer will see them that way. (Of course people with common names are a bit exempt from this issue. No such luck for the Kurtis Scalettas of the world.)

What can we do as academic technology consultants to help protect students from themselves? Will any warnings be similar to campus-wide anti-drinking campaigns, which may or may not have any effect on the inevitable experimentation and recklessness that goes with being young?

A few good books

Here are some of the non-technological literature that has informed our practice in faculty development here at the University of Minnesota in recent years.

  1. Milton Cox's work on Faculty Learning Communities really changed the way we think about programs... instead of consultants working one-on-one with faculty, we thought more about cohorts and community. Our evaluation has shown that faculty really value the opportunity to exchange ideas with other faculty, even (or especially) faculty from other colleges and disciplines; it's a rare opportunity to do so.
  2. Dee Fink's work on course design radically changed our process from a traditional instructional design model to one that makes more sense for higher education.
  3. The work of our own alumn John Bransford - We use the book he co-edited, How People Learn, book extensively in our programs. In particular, How Experts Differ from Novices is an illuminating chapter that always gets a good discussion underway about the higher cognitive goals of instruction.
  4. Thomas Angelo & Patricia Cross's book on Classroom Assessment Techniques is never far out of reach. This is an immensely practical book full of ways to engage learners make a class lively and fun. The fact that they also useful for assessment almost feels like a bonus. Here's a summary with a few examples.
  5. Lately we have been looking into "signature pedagogies," the discipline-specific traditions of teaching and learning that inform the way faculty think in different areas. Lee Shulman introduced this idea in writing about professional education. Since then people in other areas have explored the signature pedagogies in their own disciplines, many of which are collected here.

If you're only going to read one thing on fair use and copyright this year, make it the International Communication Association's (ICA) "Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Scholarly Research and Communication." (But you really should read more than one thing on fair use, as it's relevant to us all at the University.)

Communication scholars routinely use media and communication products in their teaching and research. Yet a 2009 survey of ICA members revealed that those who responded did not feel confident about "their rights to use unlicensed copyright materials, and as a result nearly a third avoided research subjects or questions, and a full fifth abandoned research already under way because of copyright concerns." Of course, communication scholars are not the only ones to use media in their research and teaching. Moreover, new technologies that allow everyone to more easily share, duplicate and store media can complicate discussions about fair use. No wonder I often observe confusion about copyright during my consultations with faculty and staff, sometimes to the detriment of scholarship and teaching. The ICA code of best practices provides an excellent overview of fair use, the exemption to copyright law that allows educators and researchers to use--under specific circumstances--materials without paying or seeking permission.

Knowledge is power when it comes to exercising fair use, but the other noteworthy thing about this document is its rationale. When the authors discuss how judges make decisions about fair use in practice, they make this point: "The fact that community practice influences judicial decisions makes it important for communities of practice to understand and articulate their fair use rights." On one hand, fair use is decided on a case-by-case basis. When I provide consultations on this topic I always recommend conducting a fair use analysis and keeping a record for each instance of using copyrighted materials. But what is also needed is a wider conversation, within academic disciplines and across campus, about fair use in scholarship and teaching.