del.icio.us not Tasty for Everyone

When I encountered del.icio.us about two years ago, it was the first taste of web 2.0 I experienced, and it opened a whole new world. I not only thought it was an amazing way to store my own web links, but to also connect with others that had similar interests who were also saving bookmarks on the web. The idea if social bookmarking was very appealing to me then, and it remains so now. This web-based practice is generally useful and convenient, but it is also a powerful way to discover new resources, build connections among people with similar interests, promote collaboration, and tap into a new way of organizing the web. In many ways, I see it as a bit of a gateway experience to exploring new instructional possibilities and practices…if you get this one, the doors to the participatory web begin to open up.

Clearly everyone doesn’t see it the same way.

In the work I do with faculty to explore meaningful uses of technology to support teaching and learning, social bookmarking – and the concept of tagging in general – is something I try to promote. Some faculty members immediately see the value and become tagging junkies (and encourage their students to do it as well), some have a passing interest and tolerate it for a while and still others see it as bizarre. “Why would I want to share MY bookmarks with people I don’t know?” or “This is a great tool, but I really don’t want to share with anyone…can I keep it private?” or “What do I need a network for?” Comments like these always give me pause for reflection. I try to understand the resistance.

One thing I have been giving more thought to recently is the language and meaning surrounding the ideas of “social” and “bookmarking.” Social brings thoughts of conversation, interaction and public exchange. Bookmarking brings images of one-on-one with a browser, individually saving sites, a private act, and sharing –when it happens – is with an emailed link.

Social = open + public
Bookmarking = personal + private

Like oil and water…these are at odds. Some folks see social bookmarking and say…you must be kidding…mix private and public? The initial contact with the idea seems so foreign that many can’t get past the semantics. They won’t even come to the table. The ideas – appealing to early adopters – are in need of some translation, reconceptualization or repackaging to be more broadly appealing. The practice of social bookmarking needs an emulsifier to mix together seemingly disparate ideas and make a tasty dressing.

I suspect that the language surrounding many of the web 2.0 practices and tools that instructional technologists readily use to communicate with each other, may well leave others scratching their heads, unable to share in the excitement and possibility. I’m feeling a strong need to use different language to talk with faculty members about something like social bookmarking. Sometimes I think that a simple [re]packaging can get the job done. But I’m wondering how social bookmarking can be [re]labeled so that more educators can engage with the notion of building connections through resource sharing? Is this really even necessary? Am I totally missing the boat here? Should I even be concerned?

In a recent post, Will Richardson commented:

We’re in the “Networking as a Second Language” point in teaching, this messy transition phase that is slowly gaining traction where we are beginning to understand what this means but not quite sure yet what to do about it.

I think this notion of “second language learning” gets at a little bit of what I’m struggling with. I think I’m looking for a way to translate, to use concepts in the first language to assist folks in understanding concepts in a new language. I’m feeling a little bit at a loss about how to proceed…

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Google University – Approaching Beta?

The notion of a Google University is not a new one, but recent interest among some universities to embrace the use of YouTube for hosting instructional content has brought things into a slightly different focus for me.

UC Berkeley was the first to jump in and set up a YouTube channel for distributing content, and they have recently been joined by MIT, USC, Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, Texas Tech and Auburn. More are sure to follow. On the surface this seems like a great way of sharing learning resources as well as a marketing tool for colleges and universities to show a different web presence…participating in some of that YouTube love.

Another interesting wrinkle here is that it has not been made transparent by YouTube just how other interested universities might become involved in offering their own YouTube channels. The Chronicle recently reported that calls to the YouTube brass about gaining additional information about how to get involved in YouTubeU have gone unanswered. Club membership seems to be a bit restricted at this point, but why all the interest? Perhaps exclusivity is fueling the the desire to join…

Google, with its vast resources, really seems on the verge here of being able to open up Google University. And if McDonald’s can grant GEDs, it seems quite conceivable that a GU could offer some pretty compelling degree programs. It could provide its students with unlimited web-based access to some of the most amazing library collections in the world (Stanford, University of Michigan, Princeton, Oxford, Harvard, Cornell….etc.), a suite of web-based productivity and learning tools (Gmail, Calendar, Pages, Docs, blogs, Maps, Reader…and not to mention Search) and now an emerging collection of full video recordings of courses and lectures from some prestigious universities. Wow!

It is not difficult to imagine or envision a scenario where you could enroll for a Google Course. Courses could draw upon the vast collection of resources, pulling and re-assembling the best learning content to suit the needs of individual learners. The idea of having an intelligent tutor embedded in the web browser that is evaluating decisions, links, and responses to learning content…in real-time…and serving up a multimedia buffet of resources that seemed to be just in time to support that next cognitive step. In such an environment the learner could always remain in that zone of proximal development. Hmmm…a long shot? Maybe.

What might such an arrangement mean for traditional notions of courses? Degree programs? Institutions of higher education? For learning?

Would such an environment be desirable?

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Instructional Technology – Does it Really Matter?

The conversation that continues to be carried forward by Martha Burtis and Laura Blankenship surrounding their recent Fear 2.0 preso at ELI, has encouraged me to reflect on similar thoughts and experiences I have been having recently. Many thanks to them and their co-presenters who put together a session that continues to send out important ripples for us to think about.

The questions about relevance and “does what I do really matter?” are perennial and shifting, especially when it comes to the notion of the role of the instructional technology[ist]. To be honest, I’m not even sure I can say what an instructional technologist is anymore, short of being a container that means lots of different things to lots of different people. But I don’t think that is the point of the conversation that is unfolding here…at least not for me.

I have been fascinated, as many folks have, over the last few years with the seemingly endless emergence of new web-based tools that permit new forms of social exchange, knowledge creation and sharing. It has been easy to share our excitement for the tools.

But, as others have echoed, its not the tools that really matter.

Over the past two years I have had the amazing good fortune to collaborate with a group of five colleagues in a faculty learning community (FLC) at the university where I work. The focus of the FLC has been to explore the ways technology might enhance teaching and learning. The early days of our work found us exploring several web 2.0 technologies – blogs, wikis, podcasting, screen recording, social bookmarking tools…you know the drill. Some of the faculty members attempted to integrate these into their courses and teaching practice. Interest would run high on the new tools from the popular buzz surrounding them, and I certainly felt excited because I had a group of faculty who seemed very interested in what I had to share. Excitement can be hard to sustain, and the glamour of shiny new tools wears off when you are not sure about learning impact, and if you are “doing the right thing.” As our first year wore on, I started to have doubts about the value of what we were all getting out of the FLC endeavor. They had learned about some new tools and experimented teaching with them. Perhaps there was greater support for risk taking through group membership, but I found myself asking questions about what had really changed?

Change is not always obvious, and it often happens in places we didn’t previously consider.

As facilitator of the group, I had hoped that the change would be in the committed adoption of these technologies, and that teaching and learning would begin to be transformed in the classrooms these faculty members taught in. I was wrong. I’m happy that I was.

I think what changed was that we began to respect each other more, to grow in a trusting collegial way that allowed us to feel a little less vulnerable about the uncertainty surrounding what we were trying to do – to be a little less isolated and a little more connected…and perhaps to be a little less fearful about not really knowing. This is the kind of dynamic that the environment of the academy might well benefit from having more of.

We are well into our second year of this FLC, and we haven’t spent any time learning about new tools. I think we have realized that it is not ultimately the focus. We have instead begun to tell our story about our learning and the change that is often slow and circling as we attempt to make sense of technology and practice.

The members of the FLC worked collaboratively to draft a paper describing the work of the FLC and our learning, and have submitted it for publication. In the Fall of 2007, we designed and conducted a survey study exploring student / faculty expectations for using technology, the first study of its kind ever conducted on our campus. Most recently, several members of the FLC attended and presented the early findings of our study at the 2008 ELI conference. Like many who attend this conference, we came away full of new ideas, and energized by the people who make ELI what it is. These activities have confirmed a sense of value for continuing our work in the FLC.

In a recent meeting of our group – post ELI – we excitedly discussed several opportunities for next steps. As a group, we are beginning to ask hard questions about the real impact of technology on learning. Individual FLC members want to examine their own practice as they attempt to use technology in their teaching. They are beginning to critique how technology is shaping their work in the academy. Arriving at the point where this line of inquiry becomes valued and important in the lives of faculty members takes time, patience, the development of trust, and endurance to get through the wondering if it is even worth it.

Engaging in collaborative and interdisciplinary scholarship about the impact of technology on teaching and learning has served as an impetus for our group to start a larger conversation – one that has been missing on our own campus – about learning and the role technology should play in it.

So does the technology really matter? I’m not convinced yet, but what we do together in search of an answer certainly does…

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Tag clouds as a heuristic

I have been fascinated by the concept of the tag cloud since I encountered it for the first time a few years ago on flickr and del.icio.us. I’m not always too sure what to make of them, but my interest in using the tag cloud as a form of knowledge representation was renewed at the recent ELI Conference.

During a session presented by George Siemens and Cyprien Lomas, they offered some interesting perspectives on using web-based tools to assist with data visualization. One of the tools was, Many Eyes, which provides the opportunity for unique visualization of data. One of the options in ManyEyes is the generation of a tag cloud from large amounts of text. I had come across ManyEyes some time ago and thought it was pretty interesting, but at the time I just didn’t have a strong sense of what I might use it for. As happens all too frequently, I let it get buried under a host of other tasks and other ideas demanding my attention.

During the session George Siemens commented that he will occasionally – when he is bored – take the last several months of posts from his blog and dump them into ManyEyes to create a tag cloud. Someone in the audience immediately picked up on this and suggested that we take the last several years of the Horizon Report and generate tag clouds for the sake of comparison. This idea really seemed to resonate with people in the session, and the back channel communication being conducted on Twitter immediately began to light up with this idea.

Picking up on this idea after the conference, Chris Lott generated tag clouds of the most recent Horizon Report, as well as for past reports from 2004 – 2007, and posted them to his blog. Interesting stuff…

This practice of generating tag clouds for knowledge representation also appeared last week following President Bush’s most recent state of the Union address, one version of which can be found here. Both of these examples suggest an interest in using tag clouds as a form of sense making that is gaining in popularity.

This recent activity and buzz surrounding tag clouds has increased my interest in their use as a form of knowledge representation. Sometimes I find that when I look at tag clouds of data sets I get a flash of insight that leads to some realization, something that helps me analyze underlying meaning and sub-text. And sometimes I look at tag clouds and see…well….just clouds. Data haze. However, I am thinking increasingly that there is something a tag cloud reveals in a way not otherwise possible. In this way I think that the creation of tag clouds represent a replicable method for directing inquiry and attention when we are engaged in learning or problem solving…in other words a heuristic.

I am a huge of using technology tools in ways that help us to do things that would otherwise not be possible…or otherwise so time consuming and tedious as to discourage a particular practice. Many Eyes, for its ease of use in generating tag clouds from large amounts of text, permits a level of analysis that would otherwise not be possible. Taking hundreds of pages of text and representing the frequency of key words can be accomplished in mere seconds. There is also another web-based tool, a bit less sophisticated than Many Eyes, called TagCrowd that permits similar tag cloud generation using text, as well as just entering a URL for a website…so perhaps some interesting potential here as well. Ultimately, I think this kind of practice opens the door for us to ask some interesting questions and perhaps lead to inquiry that might otherwise remain unexamined.

So, I am continuing to think about practical ways this might be employed in educational contexts to support learning and inquiry. Building on the basic blog / report idea from George Siemens, I think the following practices would also be of interest:

  • Tag clouds for individual and class sets of student papers / essays.
  • Tag clouds for speeches and lectures.
  • Tag clouds for analyzing the content of websites.
  • Tag clouds of classic pieces of literature.
  • Tag clouds generated from set of stories covering the same news event.

Just to name a few…

The other thing I wonder is, if we engage in these kinds of practices in the classroom, what are the kinds of questions we should be asking students to wrestle with? how do they interpret tag clouds? Are they of value in supporting learning? Inquiry?

In any event, I’m sure I’ll be doing my fair share of dumping data into Many Eyes and seeing what kinds of patterns and questions emerge. I remain excited to learn about other creative uses for the tag cloud that are bound to emerge, but one I’m thinking about is a web-based application that would create a tag cloud from selected podcasts (transcribed text content) where the tags are also links to the list of podcasts addressing that concept. Anybody know of something like that?

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