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I was inspired to blog tonight by Rachel Happe’s latest post on The Social Organization, which I just learned about from one of Lawrence Liu’s tweets. I started following Lawrence on Twitter yesterday. I saw his tweet on my NetVibes homepage as I finished my bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. So, let’s review. I am writing something that I would probably have never written based on several seconds of very minimal social contact with two people I have never met, contact mediated by simple tools that allowed all this to happen in seconds while I was happily eating my ice cream. For me, that’s a successful application of social computing.

Rachel’s post related to the difference between social networking tools and computer-supported collaborative work tools or groupware. If you ask people why they use groupware like SharePoint, Domino, ThinkTank, and WebEx, the easy answer is, “to accomplish group work and increase productivity.” When you ask people why they use tools like Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, the easy answer is, “to socialize.” As Rachel describes, these two broad goals share a set of common processes that can be facilitated by tools from both categories. Also, the boundary between these categories is getting blurrier by the day.

Of course, the motivation to socialize is very complex and I am going to focus on just one aspect of it here. Outside of improving productivity and finding the love of your life, why do we seek the company of other people? Leon Festinger (1954) had some ideas about this that he developed into his Social Comparison Theory. Although subsequent research has indicated that things are much more complex than Festinger theorized, the basic principles of social comparison have held up and have implications for online social networking.

Festinger argued that the only way we can evaluate our own abilities in the absence of objective standards is to compare ourselves with others. Am I a good eLearning Director? Do I have a good understanding of new and emerging technologies? I ask myself these questions every day. I try to answer them by finding others with whom to compare. Who do I choose? Festinger held that we sometimes choose people or groups that are clearly worse than us. This downward social comparison is quick and reassuring (e.g., “At least I know more than that guy”). However, if all we did was compare downward, we would never improve. Festinger suggested that human beings are motivated by a unidirectional drive upward. We want to improve our abilities, so we must evaluate ourselves against others who are better than us – not light years better, but just a little bit better. This way, we gain some sense that we are improving. Of course, those people with whom we compare are improving right along with us, so we may end up comparing ourselves with the same person for quite awhile, locked in a friendly and mutually beneficial game of leapfrog.

That’s one reason why applications like Twitter are so valuable and so different from other workplace collaboration tools. They appeal to different motives and satisfy different, but equally important, social needs. Second, the people with whom I compare myself are often not working for Winona State (no offense WSU colleagues). Of the top five most influential people on your Twitter list, how many work inside your company or institution? Of those on your list from within your organization, are you following them for social comparison purposes or for other reasons? I think we purposely pick people who don’t work inside our organizations in hopes of finding new partners, new ideas, and new standards of comparison that will challenge us to move upward. Facebook and Twitter, as open, free, accessible tools are more appealing for social networking than enterprise collaboration systems like SharePoint that are currently more difficult for external friends and colleagues to access.

Finally, both of these implications suggest that using Facebook for enterprise collaboration purposes is probably not such a great idea. I am guessing that this is not even an issue in the corporate world, but it is in higher education as faculty and administrators take their first steps into the great Facebook abyss. Fortunately for our students, this sort of thing usually happens long after they have left and moved on to something else. In fact, I sometimes think that faculty using tools like Facebook to support exam review sessions signals to the last remaining students that the tool is officially lame. I think there is a lesson here for any organization. As important as social networking and communities of practice are within an organization, people are venturing out into the blogosphere for good reason – reasons that will benefit them and your company. Don’t follow them and don’t let the worlds collide.



Are you afraid of social loafers and free riders? I was having a discussion the other day about creating a shared, online directory of technology training videos. The issue of exploitation came up. The concern was that certain individuals who create a lot of videos would feel exploited by those who were using them without contributing anything themselves. It struck me that this is the same concern raised by faculty when discussing open courseware (OCW) initiatives. They ask, “Why should I contribute my intellectual property freely so that another instructor can just use it without expending any effort?”

I think this is actually a pretty complex psychological response and it wouldn’t hurt to try pulling it apart. It also needs to be interpreted within a larger social and political context, one that is in the midst of dramatic change. What seems irrational today might not seem so crazy five years from now.

What beliefs underlie this faculty concern today? I think there are at least three:

  • Welcome to the Academy. Many faculty identify very strongly with the group, the “Academy.” They see all faculty, especially tenured and tenure-track, as members of this group. There are grueling initiation rituals, well-established norms, and tacit performance expectations, particularly for junior members. The idea that members of the Academy could simply use another member’s syllabus, course materials, and activities versus producing their own is anathema, even if the final product is virtually identical to existing work. Thus, faculty concern over OCW may be largely due to the belief that other members of the Academy may loaf and not pull as hard on the rope. Junior members may be reluctant to use OCW resources for fear of being pegged as a loafer by the very members of the Academy who will grant them tenure and promotion. Of course, faculty who believe that their Academy membership is based on something other than teaching will probably be less concerned about sharing and using OCW resources.
  • Mine, Mine, All Mine. Some faculty believe strongly that their course-related materials and activities are their inventions. For many, the validity of this claim is obscured by the inexcusable morass of half-baked, poorly communicated campus IP policies. In the absence of clear, fair, and reassuring policies, faculty, particularly those who see teaching as their primary contribution to the Academy, cling tightly to their work for fear of being lured by OCW into a decision that might lead to their own obsolescence. Interestingly, the other edge of this sword is the strong belief that the Academy expects course-related materials and activities to be the unique and creative contributions of individual faculty. Thus, some fear that participating in OCW might reveal their “deep dark secret,” one likely shared by everyone who has ever taught a college course, that much of what they do when they teach is neither unique nor their own invention.
  • Pay Me. All faculty members that I know believe that they should be compensated fairly for their time and effort. Some of their concerns about OCW relate to the fact that sharing instructional content with the world may require additional time and effort on their part. They may need to rework their material, obtain copyright clearances, and learn how to use an OCW content management system. The MIT OCW initiative had significant external and internal support. Faculty could literally put their materials in a box and send them to someone else who would do all of the work for them. The concern among some faculty contemplating OCW is that those who will benefit from it and who have the means to support it will free ride. A more extreme form of the “pay me” belief is the notion that certain course materials have significant commercial value. This is probably not a major obstacle for OCW in that faculty pursuing commercial success would not offer this content to the world for free.

Are these beliefs irrational? I think one is and the other two aren’t. I think two will be gone within the next five years, but one will change shape and become stronger as the direct result of faculty use of information technology. More later.


In Stage One of our review of the Winona State University Laptop Program, faculty, staff, and students gathered this spring for several open discussions that helped clarify questions, concerns, and opportunities. After reading the summary of our activities thus far and our plans for the next stages of the review, I found myself reflecting on several memorable moments from the listening sessions.

  • In the midst of a discussion about the potential of laptops in the classroom to distract otherwise attentive students, one faculty member suggested that simply walking around the room can change the social dynamic positively. She lamented that many classrooms do not allow this freedom of movement and wondered whether smarter classroom design would facilitate smarter laptop use. The EDUCAUSE ebook on learning spaces came to mind. I think we have all known for a long time that the answer is a big, “yes.” I am looking forward our upcoming review of both the formal and informal learning spaces on campus.
  • My favorite comment came from a staff member who joked that administrators should thank their lucky stars for the Laptop Program because it allows employees to take their work home with them. She estimated that her laptop is largely responsible for the additional two hours of work per day that she gives to WSU. All joking aside, this is an important and relatively unexamined consequence of mobile, ubiquitous computing in higher education. In our quest to provide 24-7 access to our students, we are also promoting the expectation that employees should be “always on.”
  • In our discussions with student leaders, I was struck by their very thoughtful and knowledgable approach to the issues. They raised all of the tough questions in a respectful and professional manner. They applied business, marketing, and other concepts expertly. Overall, they were excellent collaborative partners in this stage of the review. Reflecting back, I am now struck by just how this struck me. In higher education, I think we tend to underestimate our students’ abilities. Perhaps this stems from the traditional “parent-child” relationship schema that still holds fast for many faculty and administrators. We think we know what’s best for students at times when they don’t. In fact, what appears to be student apathy is probably a lack of understanding due to poor communication on our part. It may also reflect the learned helplessness that often results when exposed to unpredictable and uncontrollable change. I think these listening sessions did more to educate faculty, staff, and administrators than students.  
  • The laptop is one important component of a larger, integrated learning environment. I think just about everyone who attended a listening session understood this. I can’t recall anyone arguing that we should abandon the program and return to shared computer labs or some other, lesser form of ubiquitous computing. If anything, attendees argued that we should be expanding our academic use of laptops and improving the learning environment to better support laptop use. As expected, cost appeared to be of greatest concern to students and will be a major focus of the next stage of the review.


So much for being committed to the open exchange of ideas, collaboration, and innovation. In a letter on their Website on Friday, Desire2Learn (D2L) President and CEO John Baker, conveyed the news that Blackboard had been awarded $3 million from the jury in their Kafkaesque patent case against D2L. The US Patent and Trademark Office will be reviewing the patent, but the decision in favor of Blackboard is sure to reverberate across the educational landscape and send other commercial course management system vendors scurrying.

At issue is D2L’s apparent infringement of Blackboard’s “invention” of network file access control, wherein users can have varying levels of access to different network file directories based on system-defined roles (e.g., teacher versus student). According to their Opening Claims Construction Brief, the world before Blackboard was a chaotic and confusing place, where people had to access different files on different servers using different network credentials. The Blackboard course management system presumably ended all that by “inventing” what everyone knows existed before Blackboard.

It’s very difficult for me to remain dispassionate about this. Winona State was one of the first universities to switch to Blackboard 6 and we paid a heavy price. The system was down for weeks as we waited for hotfix after hotfix. It was immediately clear that Blackboard had shipped Version 6 too early and that WSU faculty and students had become beta testers. Of course, Blackboard didn’t pay us for our wasted time and we didn’t sue them. As bad as it was, there was a sense that we were somehow in it together and that we all wanted what was best for the students. We knew that Blackboard was just learning how to be a good software company. We were willing to wait for them and suffer through their growing pains because we believed in what they were trying to build, we trusted them, and we thought they were listening to us. Now we all realize that Blackboard is still just a spoiled adolescent; after over ten years they still haven’t grown up.  With this lawsuit, they damaged their own brand and public image to the tune of well over $3 million and I am not confident that they will ever recover. I am certainly not going to wait for it.

What would we do if this puts D2L out of business? We are working on an instance of eduCommons OCW and Moodle and we have Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 and Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional already being used to support course delivery. If D2L went belly up tomorrow, I have no doubt that our IT and eLearning team could have a solution in place involving just those four tools in less than a month that would duplicate 75% of the functionality available in D2L or Blackboard. In a few months, we could probably approach 100% functionality and throw in a decent open source blog and wiki tool to boot. There are good alternatives out there.

By the way Blackboard, we are already supporting academic courses using Microsoft SharePoint 2007 team sites and Adobe Connect. In SharePoint, there are multiple user roles (e.g., Read, Contribute, Design, Full Control). These roles can be set for the same user within the course site and across course sites. Students and faculty can be readers on one area of a course site and contributors in another. They can have full control over one course site and contribute access to another. SharePoint is built to allow this flexible level of access control. In Connect, there are multiple user roles (e.g., Participant, Presenter, Host). Instructors can be hosts of one course session and presenters in others. Students can be assigned any of these three roles across and within course sessions, which controls their access to course information and activities. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Should Microsoft and Adobe lawyer-up? How much money do you have left in your war chest?


I presented Respondus 3.5 to several groups of instructors this week as part of our initial roll-out and the response was mixed. Based on a recommendation from the Instructional Management System Council, MnSCU announced the availability of a system-wide license in late January for the beta version of the Desire2Learn (D2L) Respondus “personality” that allows instructors to create question pools and specific tests and quizzes for import into D2L. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of entering 100 multiple choice questions into D2L manually, it’s no picnic. Using Respondus, the experience may be slightly less painful. Here are the major benefits of Respondus compared to simply using the same functionality already available in D2L:

  • You can do all of the work offline. Respondus then creates a zip file that can be unpacked into your D2L course.
  • The interface for reviewing and modifying questions is somewhat more usable. A full list of questions and individual question properties appear on the same screen in Respondus, whereas you must switch between pages in D2L.
  • A test can be printed or copied to a word processor for proofing by the instructor prior to releasing the test, a feature curiously absent in D2L.
  • Instructors can import questions into Respondus from properly-formatted Microsoft Word files as well as from online test banks available through the Respondus Test Bank Network. Although D2L allows for the batch import of questions from a CSV file, this requires considerable rework, often to the point of being more time consuming than entering questions individually. Tests already developed in Word would require less rework to conform to the Respondus formatting requirements, saving instructors time when re-purposing existing tests.

That seems to be about it. In terms of question authoring and editing, I actually like the HTML editor used in D2L better than the one available in Respondus. I had much less trouble with the equation editor and there is no code view available in the Respondus editor (although you can insert raw HTML). Initially, I thought Respondus might facilitate the sharing of question pools and assessments across instructors, but the course component export feature of D2L 8 makes that just as easy as exchanging Respondus files with colleagues. I think this lack of support for collaboration and sharing around assessments, is a major weakness of both tools.

Overall, I think Respondus might appeal to instructors of large sections who rely on multiple-choice tests delivered via D2L and who must maintain a large pool of test items. It would be particularly useful for those who can tap into the Respondus Test Bank. However, I am personally underwhelmed by this version of the tool. When it comes to D2L, I expect to suffer through the common limitations found in most Web apps. When I installed Respondus on my laptop, I had much higher expectations. I believe what instructors want out of a tool like Respondus is essentially a secure, multi-functional, end-to-end assessment management system (AMS) that they can keep with them. Instructors like to keep their tests close and the idea of maintaining that AMS on their own laptops would resonate with them. This AMS might include such features as item analysis data tracking to help instructors evaluate the performance of test items over time and repeated use, a reusable media library with some basic annotation and editing tools (e.g., cropping, callouts) and the ability to track which object is associated with what question, a feedback library of commonly used phrases that might speed up the addition of feedback to new questions, and some collaborative test construction and question sharing features. Now that would be exciting.


After a shaky start last semester, the performance of Desire2Learn (D2L) was much improved during prep week and the first week of classes this spring. Some instructors reported frustration with slow file uploads and nondescript error messages, but the system was not down or otherwise unusable for lengthy periods as it was during those critical first weeks last semester. Having moved to D2L from Blackboard exclusively last spring, the problems in the fall were a real nightmare.  Neither elephants nor faculty members ever forget. As the expiration of our system-wide, five-year D2L contract draws near and we begin discussing options, I think we can expect a high level of interest and participation from the faculty. 

I am confident that we can have a constructive, civil, and intelligent discussion when the time comes. I see how hard the MnSCU staff has worked over the past four years to make D2L function for an increasing and increasingly demanding number of users. These are not people who sit at their desks with their feet up eating donuts while smoke pours from the servers. No one wants D2L to succeed more than the MnSCU staff who administer the system and central hosting of a common set of instructional Web services is still a promising concept. It’s a basic human bias to assume that events are caused by the dispositions or personality characteristics of individual actors rather than the situations that these actors face. In fact, this tendency is so fundamental that it’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error. We all need to be very aware that the problems we have had with D2L are not the fault of any individual or any personified organization (e.g., Evil MnSCU), but the result of a set of situational factors that we need to take the time to understand if we are to have a productive conversation. The situation we face will only become more complex and demanding in the years to come.

We also all need to understand what constitutes a, “course management system problem.” It’s not uncommon for incensed instructors to call us complaining that, “D2L is down,” when it’s actually another issue (e.g., their home wireless router is on the fritz). I have also found that the instructors who complain the most about D2L seem to be the ones who use it the least. Although I have heard fewer complaints from the heavy users, I find them much more compelling and informative. This is not meant to be insulting and the vast majority of our instructors are very aware of the potential points of failure that separate them from their Web services, but we all need to be sensitive to our tendency to pile on out of frustration before fully understanding the problem.

Looking at things from the instructors’ perspective and having used D2L in my own courses, I can safely say that the current version is not going to win any usability awards anytime soon. Neither will Blackboard, eCollege, or just about any other course management system of which I am familiar. Just comparing the very best widgets that D2L has to offer with the tool that I am using right now for free brings the real challenges faced by these comprehensive course management systems into harsh relief. Not only are we running out of patience and money when it comes to these monolithic applications, we probably won’t need them much longer. The various functions served by these all-in-one solutions (e.g., content management and authoring, synchronous and asynchronous communication, assessment and feedback) can already be met much more effectively with other tools, piecemeal. This has actually been the case for a few years now and the Web 2.0 shift is just accelerating the process. In my opinion, the most useful features of Blackboard have always been the third-party “building blocks” created by other companies. Blackboard has simply provided the glue that we seemed to need to hold these tools together and provide the “unified user experience” that we thought our students wanted. As it turns out, that glue was probably over-rated all along, we can probably provide it ourselves now, and today’s students probably don’t need this unified experience as much as we think they do. I am sure they see it as quaint, while they are quickly becoming proficient with using multiple tools for different purposes and then mashing them all up in a variety of different ways that make sense to them. They don’t have to make sense to us.

The next five years are going to be very exciting. Rather than migrating to yet another “Instructional Management System of the Future,” I hope we can finally put these systems behind us. They have served their purpose. Now it’s time for us to move on.


Each year, I leave EDUCAUSE with impressions of the state of academic technology in higher education that are extremely biased by my own interests and preferences, the specific sessions I attended, and even the physical environment in which the conference took place. This year, EDUCAUSE was in Seattle, so I was well-caffeinated for most of the sessions. Apparently, there is a city ordinance that you must have a Starbucks cup in your hand at all times, that your coffee order must take at least 5 minutes to describe to the barista, and that it must include the word “pumps.” Taking this into account, here are my personal impressions from EDUCAUSE 2007:

  • I dream of Spellings. Last year, Blackboard’s self-destruction, the emergence of Moodle, advances in open/community source initiatives, and the continued development of open educational resources gave me hope that higher education was finally taking care of its own business. This year, I felt bombarded by the message, “Something’s coming, you aren’t ready for it, and you better get your act together.” We are being pushed and pulled by external forces that all seem to include the word “outcomes.” When I close my eyes, I see Margaret Spellings chasing me down the street with a ruler. She is yelling, “Show me that the money you just spent on DyKnow has led to the achievement of learning outcomes!” “No…no…you just have to trust me,” I scream. But it’s too late.     
  • Is the commercial LMS doomed? I left EDUCAUSE this year with the impression that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the comprehensive, commercial learning management system (LMS). In trying to do everything, these applications have never really done anything particularly well. For awhile, these tools were the only game in town and institutions were forced to pick their poison. Now we have choices and tools like Blackboard and Desire2Learn are looking very 20th Century. Rapid growth in the adoption of these tools has uncovered major scalability problems. An emerging service-oriented model is allowing us to modularize the functions that were always bundled in a comprehensive LMS (e.g., content management, asynchronous collaboration, virtual meetings, testing) and invest in those modules that are most important to us. The Web 2.0 shift has reminded us that software can actually be usable, inexpensive, and fun. Today, it’s much more difficult to answer the question, “So why are we paying 100K a year for Blackboard?” I don’t think there will be a reasonable answer to this question in a few short years. These tools have served their purpose and now it’s time to move forward.
  • No faculty bashing. At every previous EDUCAUSE, there has always been at least one session where the presenter said something like, “Well I work with faculty…and you know how they are.” The audience then chuckled/groaned and there was much eye-rolling. I am pleased to report that I witnessed none of that this year. In fact, I have never seen more faculty in attendance. I think most IT professionals understand that instructors actually know what’s going on and that there would be no servers or student information systems to manage if it wasn’t for faculty. I think most faculty understand that there is a wonderful world of reliable and potentially beneficial tools out there and that IT professionals are motivated to help them leverage those tools to support learning. 
  • The promise of the commons. Just about every session that I attended this year had something to do with creating, integrating, combining, and sharing resources within a virtual community. As is our tendency in higher education, many of us have been talking a good game for years but have been either too frightened or too confused to take action. This year, I left EDUCAUSE believing that the learning commons was actually taking shape and that WSU could participate. Technologically, it has never been easier to create and share knowledge. Psychologically, I think we are closer than ever before to finally shaking free of the anxieties and insecurities that have prevented us from realizing our full potential as a group. My major take-away from the conference was a renewed commitment to help WSU join the learning commons, make meaningful contributions of our own, and find ways to share, partner, and collaborate with others within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and beyond.  
  • I must have an iPhone. There must be some academic justification for me to have an iPhone. How about someone collaborating with me on an “Impact of the iPhone on Higher Education” project? Seriously…if I could just have an iPhone, I won’t ask for any more technology for the rest of the year.

The call for pre-conference sessions and presentations for EDUCAUSE 2008 in Orlando is already out. Deadlines are January 14th and February 11th, respectively. Maybe I will see you there.


These are my notes from the EDUCAUSE 2007 Annual Conference session, “Xavier University’s Web 2.0 Strategy: The Virtual Learning Commons,” delivered by David Dodd (VP for Information Resources and CIO, Xavier) and Doug Ruschman (Web Director, Xavier) on October 24th, 2007. Despite David’s cold, this was an excellent session and a great example of an IT department that listened, faced their weaknesses and challenges with an open mind and without getting defensive, and collaborated with campus stakeholders to develop a new, learning-centered digital commons.

David described the challenges faced by Xavier over the past five years, a list that sounded all too familiar:

  • Lack of planning and leadership. Prior to David arriving in 2005, Xavier had four CIOs in four years.
  • A traditional IT organization arranged into insulated silos of activity.
  • A rudimentary set of tools with only modest Web and research services and high student demand for more Web versus face-to-face services.
  • Pressure on IT to help address recruitment and retention challenges.

David and Doug described two early projects that have since converged into their current Virtual Learning Commons (VLC) project. In 2004, Xavier attempted to create a physical “Learning Commons” inside the library. They also created a virtual admitted-student orientation site called “Road to Xavier” in 2005. This virtual orientation site could be customized by students and included a number of personal broadcasting and social networking features. Students could upload photos and watch videos. Messages from advisors were posted to the student’s in-box. Events and activities were hosted that connected admitted students with current students, such as a video production competition where admitted students reviewed movies created by current students using Ming. Road to Xavier was used to create points of engagement or interaction that would not have happened in the past. Doug told a great story about a prospective student who had some questions and connected with a current student via the Road to Xavier application. The current student offered to meet her at the airport and put her up overnight at her home. She fell in love with the campus and enrolled at Xavier.

While this virtual orientation succeeded, the idea for a library-hosted physical space was scrapped in favor of a more inclusive concept wherein the library space was only one component of the learning commons. Xavier restructured the library division as well as other divisions within the commons, developed a new case statement for a capital campaign, and developed a plan that integrated technology resources like Road to Xavier into the larger commons initiative. IT looked at how people were using the current Web services and took a very user-centered approach. Student focus groups were used to identify gaps and develop ideas for new services. Here are some VLC services either available or under development: 

  • Student dashboard, including a list of important contacts (e.g., advisor, major-specific librarian, Dean)
  • Research resources pushed based on major
  • Tools for students studying abroad (e.g., Frappr application for photo-map mash-ups)
  • A courses channel that provides direct access to current courses
  • Online training videos and a technology training calendar
  • A knowledge bank

One of the comments that stuck with me was David’s contention that the VLC needed to be, “better than Google,” when referring to students doing academic research on the Web. Rather than starting at Google, David looked forward to the day when students would use the library research services built into the VLC as their preferred entry point. I can certainly relate to this sentiment. We pay good money for campus portals with functionality that mirrors MySpace and Facebook. We read papers by students who use Wikipedia as their primary source of information while expensive online library research services go unused. It’s tempting to think that if we only presented these campus resources to students differently, perhaps as part of some Facebook-ish “one-stop” virtual shop, usage would increase. I think Xavier could create the dream academic portal and students would still use Wikipedia first, unless we see changes in certain factors beyond the control of IT. These include:

  • Student information literacy and the development of clear, course-specific expectations
  • Student motivation to engage in genuine research and scholarship versus finding the easiest path to completing a course requirement
  • The institutional support of faculty who wish to engage students in genuine research and scholarship activities that cannot simply be Googled
  • The degree to which student research and scholarship are valued and recognized within the institution and beyond

I think IT departments are setting themselves up for failure if they think that creating something that’s better than Google will change student and faculty behavior. In the end, I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition anyway. Rather than competing with Google or Wikipedia, it may be more productive to embrace these tools as two among the many in our toolbox and help our students better understand their strengths and limitations.


These are my notes from the EDUCAUSE 2007 Annual Conference session, “Defining the Digital Commons: Abstraction of Enterprise Services and Policies Through the Use of a Unified Web-Based User Interface,” delivered by Mark McCahill (Architect for E-Learning and Collaborative Systems, Duke University) and Bob Price (Director of Academic Services, Duke University) in Seattle on October 24th, 2007. This was a fantastic session, my favorite of the conference. I knew I was going to like it when Mark played a little Steely Dan prior to the start. Most breaks between EDUCAUSE sessions are deathly quiet. They really need to do something to raise the energy level a bit.

A visual of a cave painting was used to kick off the session, emphasizing the notion that computers are used to tell stories, the authors of which may be unaware of the future value of their work. Mark mentioned that we are media sponges. We use the Web for cave painting, commenting on the paintings of others, and forming communities around the paintings that mean something to the collective. Mark and Bob presented what was essentially a conceptual map for a folksonomic repository that was less about the search engine and more about the social value of the learning commons as a context and a place to meet. Four important core services would be:

  • bit bucket storage
  • tags directory
  • access logs and usage stats
  • social association engine

Mark described his fantasy of creating a Marauder’s Map that students could use to see who was where and what they were doing (e.g., studying Physics in Krueger Library Second Floor). This reminded me of the MIT Random Hall Bathroom Server. They presented the NC State Virtual Computing Lab and Freebase as a sign of things to come and initiatives that capture many of the qualities that they were describing. Here, students assemble the applications and information they need to accomplish specific tasks. This also reminded me of Popfly, Microsoft’s mashup engine that provides an interesting interface for weaving data sources together to create something new.  

This combination of a flexible, virtual toolbox/repository with a “learning commons” is very appealing from an academic perspective. As I listened to this session, I wondered what this meant for our investment in SharePoint for our campus portal and small group collaboration needs. On one hand, SharePoint 2007 has some of the qualities that Mark and Bob described. It is an interesting mix of functionality that combines file handling and workflow with social interaction and teamwork. Most importantly, the basic control of SharePoint sites can be placed in the hands of faculty, staff, and students versus IT admins. On the other hand, it’s clear that SharePoint wasn’t built to support teaching and learning. Its very broad sweep within an enterprise is focused primarily on administrative applications. In addition, deep customization of SharePoint sites and the development of new “Web parts” is something that is beyond the reach and interest of most academic users and SharePoint isn’t really intended to be an authoring tool. Although there is a WYSIWYG HTML editor for posting brief text-based content, faculty and students still need to use other tools to create content to place into SharePoint sites.

Could SharePoint be the foundation for a campus learning commons? Possibly. The thing that concerns me the most about SharePoint and what I see as the major difference between SharePoint and the learning commons that Mark and Bob were describing is the same challenge that we have been facing with our learning management systems for years: the monolithic, proprietary, and relatively closed nature of the tool “traps” content and inhibits participation in the open sharing, flexibility, and innovation that is driving the Web 2.0, open/community source revolution. It is nice to see tools like Socialtext developing SharePoint connectors. Maybe that’s the answer. I would be very interested in collaborating with other SharePoint campuses to push the limits of the learning commons concept using SharePoint as a foundation, but integrating other open tools and resources. Any interest out there? 


These are my notes from the EDUCAUSE 2007 Annual Conference session, “Using Student-Centered Technologies to Enhance the Curriculum,” by Chris Penniman (Director of Instructional Technology, Director for Instructional Technology, Connecticut College) presented in Seattle on October 24th, 2007.

In this session, Chris described a research program at Connecticut College called the Digital Enhanced Learning Initiative (DELI) that focused on how students use common technologies for instructional purposes. In the study, students in selected classes were provided with a “technology kit” that included such items as a digital camera, iPod, and all necessary peripherals. Students and instructors participated in an orientation session where the data gathering expectations of the study were set. Students then reported out during the semester via focus groups. Chris shared some interesting examples of student work and provided some preliminary results indicating that the technology may be enhancing learning and improving overall retention.

I attended Chris’ presentation primarily because I am very interested in what she called student-centered technologies: those tools that most of today’s students bring with them to campus (e.g., MP3 player, cell phone, camera). Although she provided all DELI students with the same tools, the underlying assumption was that such tools could eventually be integrated into the curriculum based on the expectation that all students already own them. This raises familiar issues that institutions with existing device mandates have been wrestling with for years, such as the digital divide and the cost of supporting a wide variety of personally-owned devices. WSU is a laptop mandate campus that requires most of its students to lease one of two laptop models from the institution, paying $1000 per year. Are we approaching the point where these devices are pervasive, affordable, and standardized enough that we no longer need to mandate specific devices or ask students to purchase devices from us?

It seems that there are still compelling reasons to maintain an existing device mandate program. I think it’s still the best way to ensure…

  • Standardization on a specific hardware configuration that meets predetermined academic needs, creating a predictable and supportable academic computing environment.
  • Continuity of functionality and performance across a student’s entire career, including maintenance, updates, and technical support.
  • Complete ubiquitous access for all students at all times.

However, I am looking forward to the day when all of these goals can be achieved by relying on personally-owned equipment that students are free to select themselves and bring with them to campus.  I think we are getting closer.