June 2008 Archives

Lifelong Learning or Lifelong Research?

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Recently a colleague challenged us to do a diagram or concept map of our own PLE in the Learning Design Hub. OK...but what is a PLE? It's a Personal Learning Environment, which I'm interpreting as what tools users are using to manage their own learning (thank you Google). This is an important topic, because as a keybote speaker recently pointed out, the goal of education at the university level isn't just learning a set of facts, but being able to develop a system for learning more AFTER you graduate.

I decided to diagram my system, but I realized that I don't usually conceptualize this as learning, but rather as research. So the diagram below is my Personal Research Environment or the tools I use to gather input or research different topics.

PLEorPRE.png See description below

About the Diagram

As a mental stretching exercise, I decided to do a process-oreiented or task driven system. I decided to classify my learning/research into three type - Random Browsing or things I learn while cruising around my environment (e.g. the Web, TV or people watching), Experiments and Focused Learning - which normally leads to a formal process such as a paper, Web site or Powerpoint Presentation.

As you can see I use different tools for the different stages. I use "push" communication tools like e-Mail, RSS and television for the browsing, but combine search with "pull" communication tools when I am actively researching a focused topic. Experimentation is sort of a catch all - this is there I play around with different tools and see what happens. This is an important strategy for technologists and creative professionals. However, it's nice when some of those experiments are documented and published so other people can learn from them.

One Tool or Many?

Traditionally, a PLE is supposed to be a unified tool which integrates other tools together, but oddly enough I'm not sure this is what I would want. I'm happy to tweak with cutting and paste or export tools to get everything to play together.

Having said that though, I do know that I want to be able to STORE everything in one location. So far that has been primarily Penn State PASS and other server space. Anything up on a service such as Flickr usually has a local backup somewhere. Isn't paranoia great?

Why "Research"?

I'm using the term "research" because I think it captures an important aspect of lifelong learning - namely that in most cases what you need to learn often has no instructor. Unlike school where almost all "required" learning is guided by an instructor or mentor, the percentage of mentorship will drop rapidly after school, especially as you need to learn more specialized topics.

At some point, you will have to be able to learn new information on your own. If you are the "designated" expert in your department, you may need to read updated information before it ever comes out in seminar form. Or...you may even need to design a seminar on the topic. And sometimes when the topic is really new, you get to be the person who experiments. Fun but scary.

I'm not saying that formal instruction completely disappears, but it definitely becomes more fuzzy over time. While you could generally trust what you were told in 100 level class as "established" fact, by the time you get to a 400 level class, you likely enter the realm of "interpretation" - either because the data is too new or it's not available at all and the scholars are speculating on what they already know. At this point, you have to learn to filter what is being said and form your own conclusion (hence the importance of multiple sources).

I still attend seminars, but they are no longer the primary way I learn. Often I can find a helpful tutorial online, but this is one-way. Colleagues are also helpful, but alas their time is not as open as my instructors (3 hours a week is still more than what a colleague usually has). In the end, it's up to me to filter my input and turn it into something helpful for me.

So what about our undergrads? I think most educators feel that this is the stage that educated adults must reach. The interesting question is how short we can make this process. The Internet is exposing students to more alternate points of view, but it looks like we still have to teach information literacy. Clearly the instructor still has a lot on his or her plate.

The Rest of the NMC 2: Religion Online

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I'm a fairly cynical creature, so it's not often that I find a philiosophical presentation mind-blowing, but this one did it. The presentation was innocently title Religion Online, but the speaker, Edward Lamoreux of Bradley University (a practicing ethnographer), raised some questions about the relation of religion and the Internet that would never have occured to me.

I should note that the questions raised are ones that may touch your most cherished assumptions. If the entry offends, it is unintentional, but possible unavoidable.

Potential Hazards of a Media Revolution

First, I applaud him for remembering that other great media revolution - the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the West. This was the invention that made it practical for more people to have access to key documents such as the Bible...and yes this did have some major consequences such as the Protestant Revolution (one of the debates was whether the Bible should be translated for anyone to read or kept in the original language for trained specialists). As Lamoreaux points out, a major religious schism is not what Gutenberg had in mind when he created a press with Movable Type.

Information vs. Ritual

Back in the 21st century, the main question is whether the Internet can be used as a source of information only or whether actual religuous ritual can happen online. For mainstream religions, the answer seems to be that certain "peripheral" activities are OK online, but there is a hesitation to conduct the most important rituals online.

To take Second Life (or chat room) as an example, it is fairly common for users to meet for Bible study (or Torah study) or for counseling sessions sponsored by religious groups. However, Second Life is less rarely used for weekly services even though there are virtual churches/synogogues available. For instance there is NO sanctioned Catholic mass online. One exception is for some non-mainstream services such as the Church of Elvis or the Church of Linden.

Contemplative Building

Interestingly though, a common activity is for users to build elaborate churches, cathedrals, abbeys or other places of worship. In fact so many graphic designers have built churches that it is difficult to separate non-sanctioned churches from islands sponsored by official religious organizations. However, Lamoreux speculates that the act of building is itself a religious or meditative activity for many people. Even in the secular world, Lamoreaux stated that the most common type of Second Life building was avatars creating a personal space to "chill."

However, it may be that for some people, the building can have an even deeper connection to their spiritual life. To be sure there are many religions in which creating or building a design is considered to be a way to connect to God or a higher plane - the most obvious example is creating sand mandalas in Tibetan buddhism. "Contemplative" art is fairly common in the Internet (e.g. fractal art galleries), but I'm not sure it's something I've seen discussed in a serious manner.

Is the Interet Worth the Risk?

Returning to the "hazards" of new technology, Lamoreaux discusses that for many religious groups, the Internet is a double-edged sword. After all the Internet can expose your group to pornography, alternate theology and the temptations of a secular lifestyle. Having said that though, I think more religious groups are taking advantage of this new outlet than we might think.

Looking back through my personal bookmarks, some interesting sites I have encountered have been:

As you can see it's a varied list, but the sites all have one thing in common. As far as I can tell, they were all built by people who are genuinely devout or at least believe in the importance of spirituality. Clearly, the Internet is being used creatively for spritual outreach.

I should say that we did NOT touch on a notorious use of the Internet and that is as a communication tool for some extremists to plan acts of destruction. Hopefully though, these sites may show that we may be able to co-exist peacefully one day (if nor amicably). Even a cynic sometimes likes to dream.

The Rest of the NMC 1: Maps, iPhone and Games

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My colleagues commented that some of the sessions were mislabelled (see below), but I was actually satisfied with what I got to see - which were some interesting examples of how new technology is playing out in the classroom

Maps & iPhone

Probably the presentation with the newest tech was Columbia's iPhone project for mapping African American historical places in New York City. This was one which has been evolving over time for them. First that added some text, video and images (borrowing heavily from the NY Public Library archives), then they added a Google Map overlay...and then the iPhone. More interestingly, the entire site was built in Movable Type - but they did a lot of clever manipulation of the templates to make less of a blog and even more of a content managment system.

MAAP: Mapping the African American Past

Because iPhone already works well with Google Maps, they did not need to add too much to the backend, although they did create a Movable Type template which generates an iPhone friendly version for each page - if you go the Web site on an iPhone, you will go directly to the maps.

I had been seeing educational applications, especially for museums, incorporating mobile phones with GIS data, but this is the first iPhone version. It looks like the iPhone is that smart phone in the U.S. with wide enough acceptance to make it worthwhile for a U.S. academic institution. At Penn State, I know there are a few applications in agriculture and sciences as well as history. At one point, we had been thinking of using a guided tour of Penn State landscape features via a Palm Pilot, but this could be easily ported to the iPhone.

Mapping in the Humanities

As if that weren't enough GIS, I went to the Mapping in the Humanities session lead by a panel of Princeton professors. This was a good panel if you were interested in some of the guts of GIS manipulation. For instance, we got a quick demo of ESRI.

I have to admit that for humanities, the big question is how you handle historical maps. The answer is that you use "custom tiles" from the Google Map API to build your own world. Apparently the historical maps of Venice are too difficult to align with modern Venice satellite maps even though both are fairly accurate.

The most memorable classroom application was a course in which students were able to travel to Venice over spring break and make blog entries about different historical sites. Another semester they got to go to Crete (and report on Venetian sites there). Myself, I'm thinking we can document some sites in Pine Grove Mills or Bellefonte.

Decision Making Seminar (actually Games)

The most misleading label for a session was probably the one about "Decision Making" in different courses (doesn't that sound exciting?). Surprisingly this was a session about GAMES (I actually hit the mother lode). This presentation was done by a group out of the University of North Carolina Greensboro, who admitted that they had a lot of (ahem) budgetary support from the Provost, so everything was very WOW.

The highlight was a course in economics which was constructed as a game where students in the post-apocopolyptic Earth have to re-establish mini trading economies. Fortunately, they get rescued in the end. One module that was especially interesting was a game where students had to allocate resources to rescue a neighboring community from an incoming hurricane. Clearly, this game could have applications beyond economics, so the group said that they made it portable so that it could be adapted for other courses...good forward thinking.

NMC Day 1 - Quick Time Pro

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For a preconference tutorial, I chose to go to the Quicktime Pro (QT Pro) seminar, partly because I have been working with a lot of video material lately. The thing I like about Quicktime Pro is that it has a lot of basic functionality (trimming, extraction, rencoding, captioning, etc) but it costs only $30. I'm not a video professional, but I do sometimes have to go in do some basic media edits. From a budget point of view, it's much easier to justify a license for QT Pro than say for Premiere or Final Cut Pro (although I hear there is Final Cut Express out there....)


In addition to the basics edits, I learned some interesting tricks. As I was so recently reminded, video takes up a heck of a lot of file space, so anything you can do to reduce file space is always a plus. One auch application was a basic slideshow which is basically a built-in script to show a series of JPEGs. The file then is only slightly larger than the sum of the JPEGs - very handy.

I also learned a whole lot about the mechanics of captioning. I'll still leave captioning to the experts, but for a quick fix, know that you may only need to adjust a text file and reimport it could be very handy down the road.

I understand that QT Pro also uses sprites to support custom skins, interactive buttons and so forth. Our instructor even mentioned a solitaire game. QT Pro won't be replacing Flash anytime soon, but at $29.95, it may be a very handy tool for some instructional designers with serious budget issues.

The Home Page is now the Orientation Area

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At the Web 2008 conference this year I was able to listen to the keynote from Steve Krug, the author of the classic usability book Don't Make Me Think.

The one take-away I got from that session was that modern users expect the Home Page to kind of be an orientation page to the site (or part of the site). That can have several interpretations, but to me this would include linking to a table of contents, a short statement of the purpose of the site, an explanation of some tools , one or two unique features and who to contact for more information. Interestingly, the home page is likely to be the second or third page visited (after the content page Google found for the user).

It reminds me of another metaphor heard from a usability expert of comparing the home page to an entrance of a store or office complex rather than the cover of a book. That is, when you enter a new store, you may be looking for aisle labels and maybe some hot sales. You may or may not be interested in the perfume lady.

P.S. My other impression was how accurate his observations of the higher education Web culture. In fact, I was wondering if he had sent an astral projection of his spirit to some of the Web design meetings I've been. Spooky