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October 2010 Archives

Making Movies

Real Costs v. Virtual Money

According to a recent College Board report, the average cost of tuition, room and board at a private college is $36,993. Knock off about 20K for the average price of a public education: $16,140. (Actual costs are closer to 10K for a public education after grants and scholarships are figured into the final package.) These rises in prices are just one of the reasons we are focused on the difficulty economy.

But how pressed is the virtual economy? According to ThinkEquity, total sales in virtual goods--virtual products you can buy in virtual spaces--rose from $278 million in 2008 to a projected $1.7 billion this year. (See all the WSJ on this.) So while the market for real goods has been in recession, the world of the virtual economy simultaneously boomed. Thus, while real people in the physical world are experiencing long term financial pain, other real people find value and pleasure in buying virtual things in simulated worlds.

Part of me would like to say this disparity between real and virtual economies is a manifestation of a heartfelt need to escape reality during tough times. But I suspect that's too simple and glib. Perhaps online communities that trade dollars for pixels are emblematic of how the real and the virtual are drawing closer together.

Since I wrote this post, the Chronicle reported that UC Berkeley became the first public institution to charge over 50K for out-of-state tuition and board.

Educause is the premier organization for technology in higher ed, and last week was the annual conference, where roughly 7000 IT professionals, faculty, administrators and vendors came together to explore, discover and share best practices. This year, I found myself stunned by a pervasive call to action. A moral call. A call to acknowledge and act upon our responsibility individually and collectively to do something. With the release of the Gates Foundation funded Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, focusing in the first wave of funding on college readiness and completion, and a conference program that was evidently built with the release in mind, it is not surprising that the conference would have some sense of moral imperative. But it went far beyond a concern for the high rate of failure in this country to educate our young. Higher ed is rapidly approaching a day of reckoning. As Julie Evans revealed, the free-agent learners are just a few years away from us, and they are self-directed learners, untethered from traditional learning, networked and connected, expert aggregators, and process focused. We cannot continue to do what we have done and expect to be around for long; and we have to decide, now, what we stand for and what we will do about it.

Are we really for education? Then we must transform our practice not only to remain relevant and competitive, but to actually and deeply educate our students. David Wiley dusted off Bloom's Two-Sigma Problem to make a startlingly effective call to open data and open content. We can share as never before, we can educate as never before. Of course, one-to-one human tutoring is not scalable. But what if we embrace open education in the broadest sense? What if we pursue meaningful and rich analytics that can feed into identifying the most effective environments, to continuous improvement and to new services, as nearly every industry has already done? What if we use these resources to develop intelligent tutoring, or at least to improve and direct our limited resources to address the needs of students who can most benefit from timely interventions? What if we abandon the comfort of false excuses? What if we take seriously the role we can play in addressing the crisis of completion in this country?

Are we for the land grant mission? Then we must abandon the quest for gain through ownership and turn to open content, open courses, and open education and discovery. Consider how MIT's Neil Gershenfeld has unleashed the creative and productive powers of young people across the globe. What might we do within our own community to empower our neighbors to achieve in extraordinary ways?

Are we up to the task of transformation? Then, as Gary Hamel argued, we need leadership that seeks to nurture insurgents and employees who hear the call to do better every day in service of a mission that is as challenging as it is important. (And, I might add, we need students who crave learning more than another lost weekend.)

The mission is clear. The evidence of the benefits of wisely used technology is clear. Time to get to work.

Traditionally, much has been made about the slowness of publishing scholarship. It can take months and even years for a peer reviewed article to appear in a printed journal. Meanwhile, blogs, tweets, and web sites are published in a blink. Of course most print journals invest their credibility and reputation on their peer review process, and blogs and many digital formats lack this oversight. (Of course online journals are a hybrid that offer faster publication while retaining peer review.)

In Googling Peer Review,his posting in The Aporetic blog, Mike O'Malley posits a transformation of peer review into a type of crowdsourced activity using Google Analytics. He imagines a site--different from Google Scholar--which would allow scholars to collect and represent their sense of what matters in a particular discipline. He writes, "You could enter a set of search terms, and instantly get the results your fel­low aca­d­e­mics, search­ing the same terms, found most use­ful. That's peer review in action. And the group of "peers" would be larger, more rep­re­sen­ta­tive, more up to date, and less inclined to dis­ci­pli­nary ortho­dox­ies. " Over the next few weeks, O'Malley will poll his audience to see which digital project he will take on and then write the equivalent of a scholarly article and see if he can manage to have it peer reviewed through crowdsourcing. Stay tuned.

Previously on this blog, Paul and I posted on Malcolm Gladwell's The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, in which Gladwell considers the role of strong and weak relational ties in activism. Strong and weak ties and theories of social networks are useful for helping us understand how social networks function in both our "real" and virtual lives (though some argue there is no longer a need to distinguish between the two.) I first became interested in this topic when I learned, through one of my weak ties on Twitter, of The Strength of Weak Ties: Why Twitter Matters in Scholarly Communication. In the coming months I'll explore related literature on social networks and diffusion of innovation as I develop a faculty development program on social networks and networked learning. I hope my exploration will lead to a more general discussion on how social network and other theories might help us strengthen our faculty development programs, which previously have been grounded in Milton Cox's Faculty Learning Communities and other literature on communities of practice.

Jones, Ferreday and Hodgson's "Networked Learning: A Relational Approach" provides one starting point for discussion about strong and weak ties in the context of networked learning. Next week we'll discuss this article and related concepts in our Faculty Development meeting. I thought our group might use this blog to prepare for our discussion next week. By Monday, October 25, read: Jones, C. R., Ferreday, D. and Hodgson, V. "Networked learning a relational approach: weak and strong ties." Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 24 (2008) 90-112.

Please post your reactions to the article in the comments, as well as questions and issues you'd like to discuss. I hope you'll explore a bit on your own and post related articles and resources as well.

Here is a suggested topic:

Describe a social network you rely on for learning, either professional or personal. Are those networks comprised mainly of strong ties, weak ties or some combination? How do your social networks shape what and how you learn?

dbostrom, Flickr

Via Boing Boing, scanned photos from the book 1975 and the Changes to Come. What were the author's dreams about the near future in 1962? Predictably, he dreamed about speedy, efficient, labor-saving machines both at home and at work. He dreamed about mobile devices (though they look a bit bulky in 2010). The author also anticipated the advent of a global village and that technology would be needed to manage a much greater flow of information. And he thought a lot about the potential of educational technologies, though it appears the educational philosophy is more behaviorist than constructivist.

Part of the fun is discovering which predictions actually came true, but I also find it fascinating to consider the values and assumptions embedded in their predictions. What values and assumptions are embedded in our predictions about the future of educational technology?

Apple's iBookstore

Apparently sales have been very slow on Apple's iBookstore. One reviewer says the iBookstore is "one big failure," in part because the number of titles available doesn't come anywhere near Amazon's offerings. (The Kindle app is available for iPad, of course.) When I reviewed the iBookstore as part of OIT's iPad Exploration Project, I noticed there were no offerings from academic publishers. Will the iPad be useful as an e-reader in the context of teaching, learning and research? At this point offerings are mixed.

The iBookstore does offer books from Project Gutenberg, a repository of digitized books that are available free of charge. Most books are in the public domain, but some have been made available with the author's permission. The collection consists mainly of "classic" Western works, mostly in English, and also features smaller collections in a range of languages. The collection is well worth exploring--I suggest their Top 100 list as a starting point. Is this collection useful for course reading or research? That depends. I found some, but missed many, foundational works in my home academic discipline (rhetoric). Moreover, if you need a particular edition or translation, it might not be available. But Project Gutenberg continues to grow, and is committed to providing digitized books on open formats that can be read on any computer, including the iPad.

As I mentioned above, the Kindle app is available for the iPad, and the Kindle store offers a much wider selection of e-books from academic publishers. You can also download and read books on different devices, which unfortunately you cannot do with iBooks. If you buy an iBook, it stays on the iPad.

There are good options for textbooks, as Apple has partnered with a textbook vendor, CourseSmart. While there are apps for iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, those devices are not required to purchase and read books from CourseSmart. It is unclear whether textbooks can be synced across devices. Currently eTextbooks are available in the online format only, and not as downloadable files.Six major publishers have partnered with CourseSmart, so there is a good selection. Or rather, they lease textbooks. There are advantages and disadvantages of this service.

One benefit of this service is that it makes available exam copies for instructors. I know I would've liked access to electronic exam copies when I taught courses. If I were evaluating several options, I'd find the electronic version easier to review, and would have appreciated not having to worry about disposing of those I rejected. However, I was just a little disappointed to learn that delivery of exam copies is not instant, as there is a weeklong waiting period while the publisher verifies your eligibility.

Students may benefit from having many books available in one portable device, and from features such as search, annotation, note-taking and highlighting. However, they may want to think carefully when making the decision between print and electronic versions. It remains to be seen whether CourseSmart is a cost-effective solution. While e-books are significantly less expensive than the print equivalent, they still are not cheap. For example, a widely used public speaking e-book is $41, while the print version costs $92 new and $44 used on Amazon. Student do not own their e-books, they lease them for a semester. The lease can be renewed, but if a student relies on a textbook as a reference in future classes, the price of the electronic version will easily surpass the print version. Students cannot share e-books, and there are limitations on printing pages.

The iPad is the most quickly adopted non-phone electronic device ever, and I did see them popping up on campus fairly quickly after they first became available. Students and faculty in CEHD will no doubt discover many educational uses for the iPad, and most certainly will explore its potential as an e-reader. I look forward to learning more once they've shared the results of their pilot project.

Thanks to Nick Rosencrans of the University of Minnesota Usability Lab for this information about the accessibility of Apple's mobile devices.

Mobile devices like the Apple iPhone and iPad provide new options for using technology in our lives. People who have specific needs for their devices - perhaps due to vision, motor or hearing difficulty - can take advantage of these devices as well.

How could a touch-screen device like the iPhone possibly be useful to someone who is blind? Here's a first-person account of one person's experience using the device in everyday life.

Apple's mobile devices all ship with iOS including a feature called Voiceover, a screenreader-like function that lets people with vision difficulty use their iPhone or iPad. A free guide to using Voiceover is available here. Many iOS applications cater to the needs of those who need assistance using their device. Here are a couple catalogs from an accessibility standpoint: Maccessibilty and AppleVis. For more info about Apple's commitment to accessibility, see their Web site at:

Questioning Learning Styles

In The Myth of Learning Styles, Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham argue that "learning styles" do not exist. They acknowledge that learners differ in ability, background knowledge and personal interest, and that these dimensions affect learning. They also acknowledge that students may prefer to learn visually or through an auditory channel; however, these preferences, when examined under controlled conditions, show no difference in actual learning gains.

The authors draw on the work of Paschler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork who conclude that "there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number." They conclude by noting the sloppiness of much of the previous research on learning styles and that future research on the topic may, in some cases, be warranted.

It's the End of Everything

A spate of articles are cropping up about the end of textbooks, the end of tests, the end of classrooms, and even the end of history itself.

Instructional technology is increasingly an eschatological discipline.

Strength of Weak Ties Redux

In an earlier post Paul called our attention to Malcolm Gladwell's Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, and its claim that we "overstate the power of social networking to create large radical changes in social contexts." Some writers at the Thick Culture blog have been discussing Gladwell's article.

Kenneth Kambara argues that Gladwell's take on weak ties is "problematic due to sweeping generalizations":

Gladwell's critique on this front hinges upon characterizing all networks as underembedded networks. There's another issue here, which is the content of the tie. Ties can be characterized as strong or weak, but they can also be multiplex, i.e., representing a complex relationship that has more than one channel. For example, a tie can be characterized by flows of different types of capital, e.g., social, economic, political, etc., with varying degrees of strength. Social media campaigns can and do tap into networks and use people's multiplex ties to increase engagement. Hearing about an issue through someone in your network is often more persuasive than from media and advertising, so there's great potential here, but going from a social media campaign to action, let alone social change, is far from automatic.

And Jose Marichal sees spaces such as Facebook as "not an activist training ground, but rather a "third space" for cultivating political identity."

In short, while Gladwell may very well be correct in saying that social media will not bring about revolutionary change, the debate sparked by his article does invite more careful consideration of social networks and the diffusion of information and influence.

Here's a few items from this week that might be interesting to people who work at the intersection of higher education and technology. I hope to make this a regular "The BEAT" feature.

In Degrees of Debt, Jeremy Dehn discusses the implications of the "gainful employment" rule, which will cut financial aid to institutions that are not graduating students with the ability to pay back debts. This could be a significant blow to online institutions. I have a hard time disagreeing with any of his points. (I taught briefly at a for-profit institution, which turns out the be a different campus of the same institution that Dehn works for now. No wonder it sounded so familiar.)

Bill Gates believes in the future of online learning, and is putting his money where his mouth is by making grants available through the Gates foundation to institutions and non-profits developing online tools for education. Sound too good to be true? Here's their website. The application process begins on October 25.

Meanwhile, another cautionary tale emerged about how nothing online is really private, and an amusing experiment with essay mills.

Email if you see articles appropriate for inclusion in next week's roundup. Thanks!

Thanks to Tonu Mikk and Phil Kragnes from Disability Services for providing today's blog post! If you'd like to contribute to The Beat, send an email to

The University of Minnesota has a new Web resource on accessibility  The September 29, 2010 UMN Brief describes the site as follows: will be a "one stop" for creating accessible documents, presentations, and multimedia; taking a universal design approach to teaching with centrally supported technology; developing web content for users with a variety of learning styles, devices and adaptive technologies; seeking information on accessibility-related federal and Minnesota state laws, U policies, and international web guidelines; and satisfying curiosity about adaptive technologies.

The accessibility Web site is also referenced in the September 30, 2010 OIT Tech Brief newsletter and the October 4, 2010 Tech Brief. 

The impetus for the Web site is to provide University faculty, staff and students a centralized information resource regarding the accessibility of electronic materials.  Although the site's primary focus is on creating accessible materials for users with disabilities, the information and best practices promoted by the site benefit all users -- users with different learning styles, users of hand-held and other devices with small displays, users whose equipment does not support all features, users searching for information and those who update information to name a few.  This universal design approach is reflected in the statement on the site, "advancing access for everyone."

 What are some examples of things that can be done to help to ensure equal access to educational materials?  Some are simple, such as creating documents with logical headings created by applying styles; providing descriptive alternative text for images; avoiding the use of color or font attributes alone to convey information; and others.  The Web site offers step-by-step "how to" instructions for completing such operations.  Some tasks are not so simple or straight forward, such as captioning a video or converting a textbook into an audible format.  In these cases the user is provided with contact information for individuals with expertise in the area or unit providing the service.

The accessibility site also offers extensive information and resources on Web accessibility from the University of Minnesota Accessibility of Information Technology (AIT) Web standards to an annotated list of Web accessibility assessment tools.  Although such automated tools are a good starting point, they cannot address the functional accessibility and usability of a Web site.  Although reviewing of a Web site using adaptive technology is the best assessment of functional accessibility, a link to a Web Accessibility Self-assessment Utility is available from the accessibility site.  The utility is in the form of a series of questions designed to help identify accessibility issues and document their resolution.

As more and more education delivery happens using online tools it becomes increasingly important for instructors to be aware of the accessibility limitations of these tools.  The accessibility barriers and best practices for some university centrally supported technologies are outlined in the "Learning Technologies at the U" section of the site -- topics include Moodle, Google Apps, MyU Portal, UMConnect Meeting, Clickers, UMWiki, UThink and Wimba Voice Tools.

In addition to creating accessible documents, multimedia, Web sites and learning activities, the accessibility site also covers Federal and state laws, university policies, and web Content Accessibility Guidelines from the World Wide Web consortium (W3C) that pertain to equal access to education and electronic information.  The final section of the site, "Adaptive Technologies," lists various adaptive technologies, describes their function and use, and identifies those supported at the U.

The accessibility site is a resource for all students, faculty, staff, and members of the community.  Capabilities and features of current and emerging technologies, differences in learning styles, faster easier materials updating with fewer errors, and accommodating users with disabilities are just a few good reasons to follow accessibility best practices.  The accessibility site is here to help to limit barriers and promote inclusion.  Visit today!

The biggest story in higher education this week is a tragic one. Roommates live streamed the sexual encounter of a young man with another young man, and three days later he committed suicide. Often when personal tragedies are turned into public spectacles, there is a tendency to explain "what it all means."

For example, the Philadelphia Enquirer used the tragedy to explore how the ubiquity of social media has made us all vulnerable to invasions of privacy, due not to government or even confusing Facebook settings, but the callousness of our so-called friends.

In such a world, how easy is it to record and be recorded, to share your - or someone else's - most intimate secrets by posting them on the Web?

All too easy.

USA Today ran a similar story, describing a need for civility and better online privacy.

It's making many people -- communications experts, students, parents and others -- wonder whether anything is outrageous enough to shock Americans into realizing that the Internet can be as dangerous as it is fabulous.

You can find more such stories with a Google news search.

I'm not convinced that kids these days have less sensitivity or comprehension of consequences than past generations. Hazing, pranking, and carelessness are as old as dormitories, and, tragically, so is the shame and abuse heaped on gay and lesbian students and subsequent depression and suicide. It's clear that social media open up new risks, though, and provide more permanent and widespread ways to torment the innocent. Teaching students to behave responsibly and cope with abuse will probably be a priority of both student affairs and technology units this year everywhere.