Setting Up a Learner Activity Hub Like #YogaMOOC or #OpenEdMOOC

Since a couple of people have asked about how I put together the Learner Activity Hubs for OpenEdMOOC and YogaMOOC, I thought I would put some of the specifics into a blog post for reference (and to help myself remember later how I did it if we ever do another one). Many of the basics are covered in Alan Levine’s most excellent guide to setting up a network hub, so I will only really cover the few things that I did in addition to those instructions. I also won’t cover too much on where to find options in in WordPress – hopefully you can find that easily online, or already know how to do things like add categories, edit posts, upload images, etc.

But first, I want to go over some unique considerations for our learner hubs. The method I describe here has some extra steps involved due to some of the parameters I wanted to have for the hub. You don’t have to have any or all of these parameters in mind. But what I wanted to have unique for these hubs included:

  • No wall of text. It is pretty easy to dump all course blog posts in one place and have a never ending scroll of text. But that is hard on the eyes and a little counter productive to getting people to connect. Also a bit dehumanizing to the individual posts.
  • Link back to individual websites. The wall of text also discourages people from going to individual blogs, and seeing them as unique individuals. So I wanted to have a theme that at most displayed the post titles, linking back to the source website.
  • Images or graphics to humanize each link. If at possible, I wanted pictures of people to link back to their blogs. This introduced a few unique challenges with technical limitations, but I will discuss work-arounds below.

The basic flow of the work would be that participants that want their work to go into the Hub (this is voluntary) would fill out a form to get me the details about their blog. I would get the results of that form. I would then create a Category for each person (based on the name or a pseudonym they give me), attach a featured image to that category (one that they choose), connect that category to an RSS feed from their blog, and let the magic happen. That way, when they create a post, an image of them with a link to their blog post is added to an image grid of blog posts. I love the results, but the process to get there is a little more involved than I thought it would be.

Setting Up the Hub

With all of that in mind, I selected a theme and some plugins to make those goals happen. Somewhat.  Here is what I chose:

  • FeedWordPress plugin. This is a must have for the Hub – see Alan’s instructions above.
  • Morphology Lite Theme. This one had a nice image-based front page blog grid, although you can’t read the titles until you mouse over each image individually. That part is a bit annoying – I would like to find one that has the image with the text imposed over it. But this theme does the basics of what I need it to do well.
  • Category Featured Images Extended plugin. This allows you to associate an image with a category – this is part of the process for creating the grid front page that I will get into below. FeedWordPress can’t pull in featured images, and most people don’t use them anyways, so this is a way to get the images that the front page of Morphology Lite needs added automatically
  • Ajax Search Lite plugin – as the YogaMOOC Learner hub grew, it became hard to find certain people’s work. This plugin seems to work well as an intuitive search. See the results here. However, I couldn’t get it to work on OpenEdMOOC, which had more plugins than YogaMOOC. It may not play well with some plugins.

The first step was to install Morphology Lite and set up my installation like their demo was set-up – they have some handy instructions here. For YogaMOOC, the blog hub is the front page. For OpenEdMOOC, the blog hub is not the front page. It can be set up either way. One thing to note: there is a setting to tell how many images are on the front page (found in Appearance > Customize > Blog Options > “Image Post Template Count”), and it is initially set pretty low. If you are expecting a lot of posts, you might want to set it high (I currently have YogaMOOC set to 600 with no problems).

Next is to set up the FeedWordPress plugin. I pretty much follow Alan’s instructions above except for one change: I don’t set a default category for all syndicated posts. I do that for each participant individually so they get their own unique category (and make sure all incoming categories are converted to tags as Alan’s instructions say). The reason for this will become apparent below.

Also, you can choose to set up the syndication update scheduling how you like. Because the OpenEdMOOC Hub is smaller, I have it set up like Alan recommends. Because the YogaMOOC is so large, there are typically a few problems with updating automatically. I have to update that one manually each day to deal with those issues.

The Category Featured Images Extended plugin pretty much works right out of the box, but I do recommend setting up a Global Fallback Image, which I will go into below.

The Ajax Search Plugin can be configured how you like, but I recommend making sure to turn on any option that says to search Categories as well.

To get the data from the participants, I created a Google Form and embedded it in a page with some basic instructions and a link to more detailed instructions for those that need it. I just collected the information that I needed – but getting user images is a bit more difficult. Depending on our course, you may want to set up a different system for collecting user images.

The final part of the set-up was to create an initial post that contained the instructions for adding blogs to the hub. I kind of see this post as the cut-off point for older posts – anything older then this was probably not created for the course and can be removed from the Hub. This is up to you of course – you can keep older posts if you like. But this initial post also serves as a visual placeholder to make sure your blog display limit is high enough – if you don’t see the post at the end, then turn up the limit. I also use this post to create the global fall back image for the hub. I set up a default category for the blog, and then add an image branded for the course. The key is to check the “set as global image” option. when editing the Category to add the default image. This will set your course iamge as the default image for anything that doesn’t have one.  This can help you to see any feeds that you set up incorrectly: if you see the image where it shouldn’t be, this signals you that something is wrong with that feed because it is falling back to the default.

Adding People to the Hub

This is where the time consuming part happens. It only takes a minute or two to set up each person, but once you get a long list of people it can add up.  However, this is a time commitment that decreases over time once most people in the course that are going to sign up for the hub are signed up.

Since I used a Google form to collect information, I can get the results in a nice convenient spreadsheet. This is where the fun begins. Some people fill out the form great, others miss a lot. I try to extract a name, a link to a blog feed, and an image for each person. The name and image can be flexible, but if the blog link doesn’t work or has no RSS feed, I mark it as a problem and move to the next one. Additionally, I try to respect what people put in the form. If they say they are using a course tag instead of a full blog, but there is no tag, I mark it as a  problem and move on. Once I get through the whole list, I send an email to those with problems with links to help them their issues (typically a form email with everyone BCC’d on it).

The first step is create a category for each person based on their name (or pseudonym if they choose). Sometimes I have to look at their email address or Twitter account to get a fuller name in order to make sure there aren’t several “John”s or whatever in the system (since some people only seem to enter their first name). As soon as you add a new category, it appears at the top of the list – very convenient. I click on the edit link immediately to add the default image for this participant’s category:

The “add image” option can be found near the bottom of the edit category page. Something to think about for images in the Morphology Lite theme: the system displays the image at full size on the front page. This will lead to a chaotic patchwork effect for images of different sizes. If you like that, then no problem. I really wanted to have an organized grid, so I manually crop and resize each image to 240px by 240px. This takes time, but gives a good grid for the final product.

A quick note on finding images. I tell people to have the image they want on their about page of the blog they use, but not everyone does that. Some of them I have to search the source code for an avatar that is hidden (WordPress loves to do this for some reason). Sometimes I have to pull one of the images off the header or sidebar of the blog. But since many of these are stock images within the popular themes, those run out quickly. So then I look for their Twitter avatar if they have one. But sometimes (more often than you would believe), I come up with no images – anywhere. So I basically run their name through jdenticon to get a unique image and move on.

Once you have an image associated with the category and have it updated, you should see it on the Category page:

The Next step is to go to the Syndication area to add the blog to the Hub. This is where it can get tricky as well. Not all blogging services work the same. WordPress works the best for full blogs and tags/categories. Blogger will also work for full blog, but you have to do some link trickery to get Labels (their version of tags/categories) to work (see Alan’s instructions on this one). Some services like Wix, Weebly, etc are just downright problematic at best. They might need RSS feeds turned on for the whole blog, and often RSS feeds don’t work well at all for tags/categories. See Alan’s instructions again on finding tricky RSS feeds.

Once you have the feed, you will need to add it to the syndication area found here:

If a participant is using a full blog, then you usually pick the first one in the list that comes up when you click “Add.” If they are using WordPress tags/categories, you will usually have to scroll down to the third Option on in the list (which is the feed specifically for the category):

Once the feed is added, I will typically add the participant category right away while their name is still fresh in my mind. Scroll down to find the feed you just added. Of course, if you have a large class this list might get long after too long. If you are adding several and are doing them one at a time by following these directions, you can do a CTRL + F to search the page for “none” and this will take you to the new one you just added in the list since it (theoretically) shouldn’t have updated yet. Click on the “Categories” link under the feed you just added:

Then scroll down that page to find the category list, look for the person’s name you just created, click the box next to them, and save:

This will connect their category named after them (which is attached to their image) to their specific feed that you just added. What I usually do after this is go back to syndicated websites, search for the new feed again, and click the “Update Now” button next to it. This lets me check to see if everything is working while also clearing out the “none” next to the “last update” label so that I can search for the next feed I add easily. Once that is finished, it should tell you how many posts were pulled in:

If you are using Morphology Lite, there is still one step needed to add blog posts to the front page. Morphology only displays posts on the front page that are set to the post format of “Image.” FeedWordPress pulls in all posts as a “Standard” post format, even if you tell it to use the “Image” post format. That feature just doesn’t work in Morphology for some reason. However, it does give you the ability to moderate posts since you have to change each post to the correct format before it appears. Sounds weird, but you would be surprised how much non-course stuff I have gotten in the Hubs (resumes, recipes, and randomness, oh my!).

You can find the posts you need to update easily in the Posts list – Image post formats have an image symbol next to them, and the new ones just added should be missing it:

Click edit to update the post. Then change the post format from “Standard”:

To “Image”:

Save, and you are done.

Alternatively, once you get a large number of posts, it may be hard to go into the post list and find one or two new posts hiding in hundreds of links. You can go to the Categories page and use the search bar to find the category you just added, then click on the number in the Count column to just display those posts from that category:

Then I usually like to go to the hub to make sure the new smiling face is in there, just to make sure:

That is about it – repeat until everyone is in. I will also send out a mass email to all that I added successfully as well as a mass email to those that had problems so that they will all know where they stand. A quick note: if people update their post on their blog, FeedWordPress will also update the related info on your Hub. This will reset the post Format back to “Standard,” and the post will no longer appear on the front page. You might want to go through the full post list from time to time to catch these older updated posts.

I tend to go through the moderation process each morning just to make sure it doesn’t pile up.

Hope that covers it all – I will update if I run across anything I forgot.

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Learner Activity Hub Guide for #OpenEdMOOC and #YogaMOOC

For those that are taking The Science and Practice of Yoga (YogaMOOC) or Introduction to Open Education (OpenEdMOOC), you might have noticed that we have a learner activity hub for both (OpenEdMOOC here and YogaMOOC here). We did this so that learners could create their reflections on their own websites, but still be connected in manner that is better than posting links in the discussion forum.

After putting many people in the hub, I realized it would have been a good idea to create a more comprehensive guide to creating a blog for these hubs. Better late than never. If you have created a blog and got the email that you were successfully added, this guide might still help you improve your blog. If you got an email saying there is a problem, this guide will hopefully help trouble shoot what caused that. If you are thinking of submitting a blog, please read this guide fully before doing so (even if you are an experienced blogger – not all blog platforms work the same in the hub).

I will start off by going over setting up a blog for the hub, and then cover the parts of the form to sign up for the hub (OpenEdMOOC here and YogaMOOC here) and why we need that info. First, the most important part.

You Need to Have a Blog

A blog is optional in either course, therefore you will have to set one up on your own (or use an existing one). We do not create a blog for you (some people filled out the form thinking that was the case). The blog you use will need to be public (private blogs do not work with the hub). Putting your blog in the hub is also optional, so no problem if you want to keep it private.

WordPress.com blogs are the best option to use with the hub, so if you are new to blogging (or want to create another blog just for this course), then I recommend starting there. The Hub uses WordPress itself, so it works best with those blogs that also use WordPress. Blogger/Blogspot blogs also work well (just read the exception to tags/categories below). Other blogging platforms – Tumblr, Weebly, Wix, Web.com, etc – are hit and miss. The Hub uses a technology called RSS to pull in posts, and some of those platforms have RSS feeds turned off it seems. If you use those platforms, you will have to turn on RSS. If you want to use one of those platforms with tags/categories (see below), you will also need to turn on RSS for tags/categories.

Setting up a Blog

Once you create your blog, you will need to set it up so that we can pull in your posts to the Hub. A newly created blog will generally need a few things to be ready for the hub. Since I am recommending WordPress, I will cover how to this on WordPress – but other blogging platforms should have similar functions.

First, you need to decide if the blog is going to only be used only for the course, or if it will have other topics covered (or already has). Either way is fine – if you want to cover a wide range of topics, but only want to have the ones on your course feed into the Learner Hub, we can do that with tags and categories.

Once you have decided how to use the blog, come up with a title for it that matches how you want to use it. Then change the title in the General Settings. We have probably 30 or so blogs currently in the Hub just called “Site Title” because many don’t change this setting :)

Next, you will probably want to edit the About page that most blogs come with. It is a good idea to put a picture you want to use in the Hub on that page. You have probably noticed that the Hub shows pictures of some people with their post, and generic ones for others. This is because I was able to find images of some people on their websites. I start with the About page and use any image there. Then I look on the sidebar or any other places for images. I also look on Twitter for an avatar there if you put that in there. I then look for any other images on the blog, even if they are stock images from the default template. If I can’t find anything, or the only image I can find has already been used, then I put your name in jdenticon. Note that you can use any image of yourself you want, or even something else to represent yourself like your favorite animal. Just note in the comment forms where the image is that you want me to use, or respond to the confirmation email from me with the image or link to it. Whatever you are comfortable with – your picture or some other image – is fine with me.

Finally, you need to have at least one blog post about the course you are taking, even if the whole blog is going to be used for the course. People try to spam the hub with their… whatever, so having content on your website about the course let’s me know you are legit. WordPress blogs start off with a sample blog post already there. The Hub seems to ignore these if they are left as is, so make sure to change that post to something about the course, or delete it and write a new one. If you want to use tags or categories to designate which content to pull into the Hub, then make sure to add a “YogaMOOC” tag or category to your post (these are called “labels” in Blogger). This is probably the biggest mistake people make filling out the form – they say they are using a tag or category, but then I can’t find a post with either one. I respect people’s wishes on this, so make sure to do what you indicated in the form. If you need help on tags/categories/labels, see these links:

Final note – if you don’t like the way your blog looks, there are thousands of different themes you can choose from to change it.

Filling Out The Form

Once your blog is ready to go, it is time to fill out the form for your course. I wanted to make a couple of notes about the fields on the form:

Name / Pseudonym: We use this to sort the posts in the Hub. Each person is given a category based on their name or a pseudonym. Please note: if you put just your first name in here, there is a chance that will get taken up quickly, and I will have to improvise a longer name for you. Names like “Kat”, “John”, etc get taken up quickly.

Email: This is where we will send confirmation or notification of failure. These are bulk emails, so be sure to check your spam folder.

Twitter Name: Not a requirement, but if you have an avatar there you would like to use in the Hub, then fill this out.

Blog URL: This is the second place people often make a mistake. This is the link to your blog for the people that read it, not to the control panel for your blog. Make sure to view your blog and share that full URL. Also remember: if you can’t copy what you put into this field and put it in a browser to pull up your website, then neither can I. Please make sure it is a full web address. Also, make sure it is not a link to your Facebook page or Instagram account – these are not blogs.

Hub Options: Make sure to choose the one that you will use (full blog dedicated to course, using blog category for course, or using blog tag for course). This is where I find the most mistakes in the form – people say they will use a tag or category and then do not. Also, make sure to use the tag/category designated for your course (YogaMOOC or OpenEdMOOC). Please note that using hashtags like #YogaMOOC or #OpenEdMOOC in the title or body of a blog is not the same as using the label or category feature of your blog.

Comments or Concerns: Let us know any comments/concerns you have here. Also, if there is a specific image you want to use in the Hub, let us know where it is in this field.

You will only need to submit the form once. The process of getting your blog into the hub is a manual one, so there could be a delay before I get it finished (especially if you submit outside of business hours in my timezone). If your blog makes it in the Hub, I will send a confirmation email. If there is problem, you will get an email about that (a generic one that repeats some of this blog post). Once you have fixed any issues with the Hub, respond to the email to let me know your blog is ready to try again. Due to the large number of learners in our courses, I can’t go back and check each one to see if errors have been fixed or not – you will have to let me know when it is ready. Don’t fill out the form again – just respond to the email.

Also, no need to fill out the form every time you create a blog post. The process of pulling in new posts is somewhat automated once you are in.

New blog posts have to go through a process of moderation in order to make sure no spam slips through. Therefore, there may be a delay from the time you publish your post and when it appears on the Hub.

Finally, if you want to change anything about the way your blog appears in the Hub after it has been successfully added, just respond to the confirmation email. No need to fill out the form again.

I hope this covers anything, but feel free to let me know if I left anything out. Have fun, and thank you for your participation!

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Further Reflections on #OLCInnovate

After last reflecting on a specific issue at the OLC Innovate, I wanted to dive into a few random reflections and then cover my session. In many ways, I have been getting burned out on conferences. Going to session after session of hit or miss topics and then straight to mixers in the evening can be a bit of a chore. Of course, I realize that many people that attend are like me – they have to present something in order to get funding to attend. So I recognize that sessions are a necessary thing for many people. It just gets hard to go to sessions all day long.

I have always wanted to do a dual-layer conference in the same vein as our learning pathways model: one option of structured presentations and another option of unstructured unconference time that attendees can mix and match to their liking. Or even a day of structure followed by a day of unconferencing. The OLC Innovate conference had some different options like that with the Innovation Lab – a place where you could roam in and look at anything from games to design thinking to improvisation. It’s not exactly a dual-layer design, but still flexible. Due to some lingering headaches, I wasn’t able to attend everything in the Innovation Lab, but what I did see was quite enjoyable. Some of the highlights:

  • Game Design. I wish I could explore game design more in depth, but the taste of it I got at OLC Innovate will probably drive me back into exploration even more. Keegan Long-Wheeler and John Stewart from OU both do an excellent job framing game design in education. Keegan chronicled their lab activities better than I could, so read his post for a better summary. Also see me playing Nintendo Switch as well as hear about our epic dinner adventures.
  • Improvisation and Innovation. My last post described how I was not happy with some of the framing of Innovation at OLC Innovate. The Innovation Lab was a welcome counter point to that narrative. Ben Scragg, Dave Goodrich, and many others showed us how innovation can occur in every day activities, using everything from improv audience participation skits to the most excellent blues guitar improv of Rick Franklin.
  • Legos. Yep, there were Legos at OLC Innovate. I played with them. I tweeted about them. Apparently my Tweet about Legos was honest enough to win me an award. I can now prove to any doubters that I am certifiably honest now :)
  • The Prophet of Innovation Doom. Who ever created this Twitter account is weird. They should probably be banned from OLC events for life. Or put in charge of OLC. Not sure which one yet.

Now for my session at OLC Innovate. I was a bit nervous about this one. This year would be my fourth presentation along the topics of open learning and learner agency (the first two were at ET4Online and then the next two at OLC Innovate). The past three years were successful mostly because I knew many of the people coming to my sessions already, and I knew they were generally in favor of my work. It is easy to joke around, get audience participation, and go off on tangents when you already have that rapport with the attendees. Plus, the first two years I presented with my regular co-presenter Harriet Watkins. Last year Harriet was at my session even though we weren’t able to present together. This year, Harriet and many of the people I was used to presenting with or to were not going to be there. My security blanket was gone. Additionally, even most of the people that were there and that I already knew (like Keegan and John) were presenting at the same time. So I went into this session not knowing who would show up (if anyone) and even if they would want to participate in the discussion or laugh at my corny jokes.

Luckily, I had a great time. I would say that it was even my most interactive session yet. We had a great time digging through the practicals of designing a course that allows learners to self-map their learning pathway. And they asked some really hard questions. I like it when that happens. I had a line of people afterwards asking me questions. Someone even told me I was one of the few truly innovative presentations at the conference. Take that ELI! :)

(ELI rejected a presentation on the same topic a few years ago. I’m still a little bitter about that I am told.)

My only regret about my session is that special situations outside of work made me too busy to connect with Virtually Connecting to bring them into my session again. I did that last year and it was a blast. Keegan was a part of that last year and his blog post backs up how good of an idea it was to bring them into my session. Of course, it was thanks to Harriet, Rebecca HogueAutumm Caines, Whitney Kilgore, Maha Bali (I even practiced pronouncing her name correctly over and over again and then was too busy or sick to be in VC), and others with VC that made it so successful last year. Hopefully next time!

Here were some highlights from the session that will apply to future posts I am sure. Sorry that I didn’t capture names well enough to give credit to these ideas – if you said one of these let me know and I will update the post!

  • Competencies. My goal was to talk about how to convert objectives to competencies, because that is what I usually have to do with the instructors I am used to working with. The attendees at my session were coming up with great competencies already. What did they need me for? They even brought up several topics that were difficult to have in both competency and objective formats. They weren’t giving me a free pass, that was for sure. The best kind of questions are the hard ones that expose problems with your ideas.
  • Open Rubrics. While discussing the need to have less detailed rubrics, one attendee pointed out that learners could even create their own rubric. In other words, it would be a rubric with the conditions and criteria blank, for the learner to create in a way that allows them to prove they have learned the content or mastered the skill or whatever it may be. This was an idea brought up last year, but in a more general form of allowing learners to grade themselves. This is a more concrete idea that would lend itself more to situations where grades are required.
  • Gamification. Some one mentioned that in many ways, self-mapping is like creating a game out of one’s learning journey. In the Game Station at the Innovation Lab I was re-introduced to Twine. Twine is “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.” Teacher could look at creating their neutral zone and pathways options in Twine. Learners could use Twine in place of something like Storify possibly. I need to get in and play with the tool some, but I like the idea of looking at a self-mapped pathway as a game.
  • Real Heutagogy. Someone actually came to the session because he knew the term “heutagogy.” This is good, but also scary. Would my idea live up to scrutiny by someone that actually knows a lot about heutagogy? Apparently, it did. He liked it. That is a good sign.
  • Visualizing Pathways. There was a lot of interest in visualizing the pathways that learners take. My mock-up of what that could look like sparked that. We need to find ways to create visual representations of this, because I think it could actually help instructors gain insight into what is happening in their courses. Are there certain points where all learners come back to the instructivist option? Or maybe flee it to the connectivist option? Would those be places where the instructor is exerting too much control? If the learner could see those patterns, would that tell them something they maybe have missed? Is there something happening out in the less structured pathway they are missing? Learner self-analytics: it could be a thing.

There is probably more that I am missing, but this is getting long. As others have said, the conversations and connections were the real gold of this conference. If I get to go again in the future (you never know where the budget in the State of Texas will be at that point), my focus will definitely be on the Innovation Lab and the interaction times. And, of course, the OLCInnovateSnark Twitter Tag as well :)

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Creating a Self-Mapped Learning Pathway

One of the questions I get about learning pathways (on the rare occasion someone actually reads this blog and ask a question) is “when we give learners the option to chose between instructor-centered options and learner-centered options, how do they record what they are doing?” Sure, learners could blog about what they do, but that often ends up being a narrative about the pathway they create rather than an actual visual representation of the pathway itself. A blog post is great in many ways, but I think people are often wonder if there is something different.

Currently, there is no tool that does what I would like one to do to cover everything in the process:

  1. Create a map of the learning pathway that one plans to take
  2. Collects artifacts as one follows (and adjusts) that pathway
  3. Adds a layer of reflection on the learning process that explains why choices were made and artifacts were created.

Blog tools can do this, but you have to scroll through multiple posts to see all of these elements, or set out a lot of ground rules on how to make one blog post to contain all of this. Again, those blog posts can be useful in many ways, but also still not completely cover the process in the best way possible.

At this point, there is really nothing that could do this “the best way possible.” However, if it were me, I would use a combination of a blog, Storify, and Hypothes.is to create the three steps above. Here is how I would accomplish that. I will use a hypothetical example to illustrate.

First, I would create a blog post that basically lists out the learning map I plan to follow. For example, let’s say that I am in a class on Artificial Intelligence and my task is to map out my learning pathway for the first unit. I would create a blog post that lists out thew steps I plan on taking, for example:

  1. Read chapter one from the textbook
  2. Read the Wikipedia article on Artificial Intelligence to learn about recent developments.
  3. Check Google News on AI for recent news stories.
  4. Read this blog post I found on AI and comment
  5. Tweet my thoughts on AI
  6. Join the #AIChat on Twitter
  7. Create my own video on AI to satisfy the Module 1 competency on AI

Alternatively, this list could also be placed at the top of a Storify about this module, followed by the next step. Or the link to the Storify could be placed in this blog post after this list. My link above has random links I found through Google, but those could also be more specific links if this were a real class :)

For those that are interested, here is what the example list above looked like in Storify (you can see later that it ended up looking different in the end):

In an ideal world where a pathways tool exists to do this for me, a Storify-like tool would exist that allows instructors to pre-populate a blank map with instructor suggested content, assignment bank options, scaffolding tools (for those not used to self-directed learning), and some generic social networking/connectivist options off to the side for learners to drag and drop into an interactive map with clickable links to whatever is needed.

Next, after the map is created, I would use Storify to create evidence of the pathway as I follow it. Technically, you could also use a blog to do this. I like Spotify because it makes searching social networks easy, and the drag and drop interface makes it easy to arrange things as you like. Of course, you can do that with cut and paste on a blog post, but I still prefer the way Storify pulls it together. Not to mention how you can embed or export your creations. You may like something different – that is great. Whatever works for you is great.

You can look at the mock-up of my learning pathway on Storify, or see the embedded version below:

 

Back to the ideal world, if the pathways tool existed, it would have something that looks a lot like Storify as a layer on top of map that existed. People looking at the tool could easily switch between the two to see the map the way that it was planned and then the pathway as it played out in real life. Or maybe the two would exist on the same page, with UX design elements that indicate what artifacts match with which map item, where map items were dropped, where map items were changed, where new ideas were added, etc.

Finally, I would reflect on the pathway process and why I made the choices that I did: Why did I choose this option? Why did I choose to create these artifacts for those options? Why did I add this option? Why did I abandon this thing that I mapped? And so on.

This again could be a blog post as well, or an addition to an existing map post. However, I would prefer to be able to give short explanations of specific choices, ideally where the reader could see exactly what I was talking about. Something like Hypothes.is annotating my Storify artifact pathway. The great thing about Hypothes.is is that I can explain specific parts of my pathway while pointing at that pathway, and it is a social system that would allow others to comment/reflect on my work as well.

If you have Hypothes.is installed, you can see the example annotations I made on my example Storify above by going to the page. If you don’t have Hypothes.is installed, you can try this page to see if the annotations appear there for you (click on the yellow highlighted text).

Annotation would also be a built in part of the pathways tool in the ideal world that I envision. Instead of installing a separate tool like Hypothes.is, learners could just click on any part of their pathway and add a comment like they would in Microsoft Word.

All of this is just one example of what I would do if I was a learner in a self-mapped learning pathway (aka dual-layer or customizable modalities) course. I actually had a lot of fun creating the examples, so I hope to use these ideas myself sometime soon. Most of what I have blogged about in the past on this topic was focused on the design and theory of these courses, but all of that needs to fade into the background to decrease design presence in a course with this degree of learner choice. The focus of what learners need to see is something like this that focuses on how they self-map their own learning pathway. Hopefully I will explore all of this in my OLC Innovate session next week.

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Is It Really Learner Agency If The Instructor “Empowers” It?

For a few years now I have been struggling with how to “verb” agency in education (sometimes referred to as learner agency or student agency). When people first become aware of the idea, they tend to use terminology like “I want to allow student agency in my classes.” I guess on some levels that is technically what happens in many cases, as the teacher typically holds the power in the course, and they have to allow agency to happen.

However, once one uses that terms a bit and gets used to the idea, you usually realize that “allowing” agency is kind of a contradiction. People tend to shift towards using the term “empower”… as in, “My goal was to empower learner agency in this lesson.” This is the verb I hear most at conferences the few times that agency in education is touched on.

Of course, saying that the instructor is “empowering” agency is pretty problematic as well. Is a learner’s thought process really independent if the instructor is the one that empowered it? Is the autonomous action that flows from independent thought really all that autonomous if the teacher had to initiate the power to make it happen?

With some twists in logic and semantic word play, I am sure one could say that agency can be empowered, but to be honest – it really can’t. If the teacher is the one that “empowers” it, then its not really agency. What many really mean when they refer to “empowering agency” is “tricking learners into doing something that looks like independent thought and action, even if they didn’t really independently decide to think or act that way because at the end of the lesson there was a grade for coming up with something within specific instructor-determined parameters.”

I have started using terms like “unleash” when discussing agency in presentations, because that is probably about all you can really do with agency – remove the barriers that are holding it down, and let it do its own thing. But still, not really the best verb for agency.

Of course, this is probably why we don’t see much true learner agency in formal education settings – you set it loose, and it could go in any direction, or none, sometimes both from the same learner. It becomes something that is difficult to standardize and quantify once it really happens.

However, I am speaking of agency as if it is something that turns on and off at the flick of a switch, when the reality is that there are shades of agency that exist on a spectrum. Even when we unleash it, or just stand back and see what happens (or how ever you want to “verb” it), its not like learners just jump right into agency feet first and swim around in it like a natural. Some need guidance, scaffolding, a hand to hold, etc – whether because they are new to the idea in a system that has never allowed it or because they just need a more experienced hand to point them towards which way to go. Oh sure, there are many that do just launch out with little to no guidance to do it just fine. In any one class, you are going to have learners all over the place. They will even switch places from day to day or hour to hour.

edugeek-journal-avatarAgency in learning is something that takes the predictable linear instructivist narrative and explodes it all kinds of directions, but then even messes with linear time in that explosion as some need it to go slower while others need a guide through the explosion and others ride the explosion with enthusiasm wanting it to go faster. Oh, and then they all change their place in that process without a moments notice. So how does one come up with a verb to explain this chaos?

(image credit: Blue Chaos 3 by Josh Klute)

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Self-Determined Learning: The Lesser-Explored Side of Open Learning

OpenEd 16 is in full swing and I am already kicking myself for not going this year. I seem to miss at least half of the cool conferences. Adam Croom has already provided a fascinating analysis of the abstract topics, which reveals a great list of important topics. However, I do notice something that is (possibly?) missing.

There is a lot about resources, textbooks, pedagogy, etc. Much of this focuses on removing barriers of access to education, which is a topic that we should all support. But what about the design of this education that they are increasing access to?

“Open pedagogy” seems to be the main focus of the design side of the equation. Of course, it is hard to tell from this analysis what people will really present on. When I think of open pedagogy, I think of David Wiley’s important work on the topic. Wiley’s description of open pedagogy is focused on being open about the design and assessment process, as well as allowing learners to remix and create their own open content.

So the question is – where is the learner agency, the self-determined learning, and the heutagogical side of “open learning”? It is probably there, but just not as explicitly named or explored. When you unleash your learners to determine their own pathway, their own context, their own content, and so on – that is also a part of open learning that needs to be specifically mentioned.

Open pedagogy is definitely a scaffold-ed step into self-determined open learning. Maybe some would argue that self-determined learning is implicitly a form of open pedagogy. I wouldn’t disagree, although I tend to avoid using pedagogy as a catch-all term for all forms of learning design due to the co-opting nature of expanding the use of pedagogy beyond “to guide a child.” But that really isn’t a huge deal to me as it is to the early childhood educators that feel left out of most academic educational discussions and usually don’t appreciate the college educators that typically leave them out also stealing the technical term for their design methodology.

Even when looking at the Wikipedia article on open learning, many of the topics touched on get close to self-determined learning, but not quite: self-regulated learning, active learning, life-long learning, etc. Almost there, but not quite.

edugeek-journal-avatarAgain, I know there are people out there that include the topics of learner agency and self-determined learning in the open learning / open education sphere, and that there are some people working in those topics. I just think there should be more. In my opinion, you can offer all the free content you want to and allow people to remix and re-use as much as you want… but if the design still focuses on the instructor (or the pre-determined content) as the center of the course, you have just created an open-licensed “sage on the stage” learning experience. Which I am sure many people will need, but for many others, this falls short of the concepts of learning how to be a learner.

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Disruption is No Longer Innovative

How can you tell if an innovator is pulling your leg? Their lips are moving. Or their fingers are typing. I write that knowing fully well that it says a lot about my current title of “learning innovation coordinator.” To come clean about that title: we were allowed to choose them to some degree. I chose that one for pure political reasons. I knew that if I wanted to help bring some different ideas to my university (like Domain of One’s Own, Learning Pathways, Wearables, etc), I would need a title beyond something like “instructional technologist” to open doors.

But beyond a few discussions that I have on campus, you will rarely hear my talking about “innovation,” and I reject the title of “innovator” for almost anyone. Really, if you think any technology or idea or group is innovative, put that technology or idea into Google followed by “Audrey Watters” and get ready for the Ed-Tech history lesson the “innovators” tend to forget to tell you about.

In a broad sense, many would say that the concept of “innovation” involves some kind of idea or design or tool or whatever that is new (or at least previously very very “popular”). Within that framework of innovation, disruption is no longer “innovative.” Disruption is really a pretty old idea that gained popularity after the mp3 supposedly “disrupted” the music business and/or the digital camera disrupted the camera industry.

Of course, that is not what happened – mp3s and digital cameras just wrenched some power out of the hands of the gatekeepers of those industries, who then responded by creating the “disruption narrative” (which is what most are referring to when they just say “disruption”). And then proceeded to use that narrative to gain more control over their industry than before (for example, streaming music services). Keep this in mind any time you read someone talking about “disruption” in education. Who is saying it, what do they want it to do, and how much more control do they get over the educational process because of their disruption narrative?

Of course, there is debate over whether disruption is real or not. Both sides have good points. Regardless of if you believe that disruption is real or not, our current disruption narrative has been around for over two decades now… probably long past the expiration date that gets slapped on any “innovative” idea. If you are still talking disruption, you are not an innovator.

If you want to convince me that you are an innovator, I don’t want to know what cool ideas or toys you have. I want to know who you read and follow. Are you familiar with Audrey Watters? Have you read Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak? Are you familiar with Adeline Koh’s work on Frantz Fanon? Do you follow Maha Bali on Twitter? If I mention Rafranz Davis and #EdtechBlackout, do I get a blank stare back from you?

If you were to chart the people that influence your thinking – and it ends up being primarily white males… I am not sure how much of an innovator you really are. Education often operates as a “one-size-fits-all” box (or at best, a “one-set-of-ideas-fits-all” box), and that box has mostly been designed by white males. Usually a small set of white males that think all people learn best like they do. How can your idea or technology be that “new” if it is influenced by the same people that influenced all of the previous ones?

So what has this “one-set-of-ideas-fits-all” box created for education? Think tanks and university initiatives that sit around “innovating” things like massive curriculum rethinking, “new” pedagogical approaches, and “creative new applications of a range of pedagogical and social technologies.” They try to come up with the solutions for the learners. Many of these are probably some great ideas – but nothing new.

Why not find ways to let the learners set their own curriculum, follow their own pedagogical approaches, or create their own ways of applying technology? Instead of walling ourselves up in instructional design teams, why not talk to the learners themselves and find out what hinders their heutagogical development? Why not look to learners as the instructors, and let them into the design process? Or dump the process and let learners be the designers?

What I am getting at is helping learners create and follow their own learning pathway. Each one will be different, so we need massive epistemological and organizational shifts to empower this diversity. Why not make “diversity” the new “innovative” in education? Diversity could be the future of educational innovation, if it could serve as a way to humanize the learning process. This shift would need people that are already interacting with a diverse range of educators and students to understand how to make that happen.

I would even go as far to say that it is time to enter the “post-innovation” era of Ed-Tech, where any tool or idea is framed based on whether it supports a disruption mindset or a diversity mindset. What does that mean about emerging ideas like big data or wearables? Post-innovation would not be about the tool or the system around it, but the underlying narrative. Does this “thing” support disruption or diversity? Does it keep power with the gatekeepers that already have it, or empower learners to explore what it means for them to be their one unique “human” self in the digital age?

For example, if “big data” is just used to dissect retention rates, and then to find ways to trick students into not dropping out… that is a “disruption” mindset. “We are losing learners/control, so let’s find a way to upend the system to get those learners back!” A diversity mindset looks at how the data can help each individual learner become their own unique, self-determined learner, in their particular sociocultural context: “Based on the this data that you gave us permission to collect, we compared it anonymously to other learners and they were often helped by these suggestions. Do any of these look interesting to you?” Even of the learner looks at these options and rejects all of them, the process of thinking through those options will still help them learn more about their unique learning needs and desires. It will help them celebrate their unique, diverse human self instead of becoming another percentage point in a system designed to trick them into producing better looking numbers for the powers that be.

edugeek-journal-avatarThis is also a foundational guiding aspect of the dual-layer/learning pathways idea we are working on at the LINK Lab. It is hard to come up with a good name for it, as we are not really looking at it as a “model” but something that turns the idea of a “model” or “system” inside out, placing each individual learner in the role of creating their own model/pathway/system/etc. In other words, a rejection of “disruption” in favor of “diversity.” We want to embrace how diversity has been and always will be the true essence of what innovation should have been: each learner defining innovation for themselves.

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Personalized Learning Versus Dungeons and Dragons

Personalized learning is popular right now. But is that a good or bad thing? I can buy all kinds of personalized gadgets online, but do I really like or need any of them? If you decided to get me a custom dinner place mat that says “Matt’s Grub” – sure that is personalized. But its also a pretty useless personalized item that I have no interest in.

Many prominent personalized learning programs/tools are a modern educational version of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series from the 1908s. As I have written before, these books provided a promise of a personalized adventure for the reader, which was entertaining for a while. But you were really just choosing from a series of 50 pre-written paths, hoping to pick one of the ones that led to a happy ending. Of course, If you happened to have any physical characteristics that were different than the ones written into the story (I remember a classmate that had shaved his head making fun of one page that had the main character doing something with his hair – yes they were sometimes gendered stories even), then the “your” in “Choose Your Own Adventure” fell flat.

ChooseYourOwnAdventure

These eventually evolved into more complex books like the Lone Wolf gamebooks that had you doing your own battles, collecting objects, and other activities that were closer to role playing games.

LoneWolf

But let’s face it – the true “Choose Your Own Adventure” scenarios in the 1980s were really role playing games. And few were as personalizable as Dungeons and Dragons.

Now, whether you love or hate D&D, or even still think it is Satanic… please hear me out. D&D, at least in the 80s, was personalizable because it was provide different pathways that were scaffolded. New players could start out with the Basic D&D boxset – which came with game rules, pre-designed characters, basic adventures to go on, etc. And that wasn’t even really the starting point. If basic D&D was too unstructured for you, there were books like the Dragonlance Chronicles or the Shannara series that would give you this completely guided tour of what D&D could look like. Oh, and even a Saturday morning cartoon series if the books were too much for you.

But back to D&D, once you mastered the Basic set, there were more sets (Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal) – all of which gave you more power and control. Then, when you were ready (or if you found Basic D&D too pre-determined), there was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. This was a set of books that laid out some basic ideas to create your own characters and worlds and adventures. And you were free to change, modify, add to, or completely re-invent those basics. Many people did, and shared their modifications in national magazines like Dragon Magazine. Oh, and what if you want to make your own world but are still unsure? You had a whole range of pre-designed adventures called Dungeon Modules. Just buy one, play, and get inspired to create your own. Or, maybe the opposite is true: you were just tired of your creation and wanted to take a break in someone else’s world.

add

To me, Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s was a much better metaphor for what personalized learning should look like. You had completely mindless escapism entertainment (aka lectures) when you needed it, like the books and cartoons. You had the structured environment of Basic D&D to guide you through the basics (aka instructivism). You had a series of games and accessories like Dungeon Modules and Companion Sets to guide you (aka scaffold you) to the advanced stage. You had the Advanced books that set a basic structure for creating your own world (aka the Internet). Then you had a network of people sharing ideas and designs to keep new ideas flowing (aka connectivism). Many gamers would go back and forth between these various parts – creating their own world, sharing their ideas in the magazines, playing dungeon modules on occasion, reading the books, and dipping back to basic D&D when the mood hit them.

This scene from The Big Bang Theory shows how players can customize, adapt, and personalized the game experience, even as they play:

edugeek-journal-avatarOf course, there were problems with the gaming community. It was expensive, and often sexist and/or racist. So I am not painting the Dungeon and Dragons world of the 1980s as some perfect utopia. I am looking at the design of the tools and system here. It is one that in some fashion pre-ceded and informed what we are doing with pathways learning, and one that I think is closer to true “personalization” than what some personalized learning situations offer.

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Evolution of the Dual-Layer/Customizable Pathways Design

For the past few weeks, I have been considering what recent research has to say about the evolution of the dual-layer aka customizable pathways design. A lot of this research is, unfortunately, still locked up in my dissertation, so time to get to publishing. But until then, here is kind of the run down of where it has been and where it is going.

The original idea was called “dual-layer” because the desire was to create two learning possibilities within a course: one that is a structured possibility based on the content and activities that the instructor thinks are a good way to learn the topic, the other an unstructured possibility designed so that learners can created their own learning experience as they see fit. I am saying “possibility” where I used to say “modality.” Modality really serves as the best description of these possibilities, since modality means “a particular mode in which something exists or is experienced or expressed.” The basic idea is to provide an instructivist modality and a connectivist modality. But modality seems to come across as too stuffy, so I am still looking for a cooler term to use there.

The main consideration for these possibilities is that they should be designed as part of the same course in a way that learners can switch back and forth between them as needed. Many ask: ‘why not just design two courses?” You don’t want two courses as that could impeded changing modalities, as well as create barriers to social interactions. The main picture that I have in my head to explain why this is so is a large botanical garden, like this:

01216 Scene at Fort Worth Botanic Gardens

There is a path there for those that want to follow it, but you are free to veer off and make your own path to see other things from different angles or contexts. But you don’t just design two gardens, one that is just a pathway and one that is just open fields. You design both in one space.

So in other words, you design a defined path (purple line below) and then connect with opportunities to allow learners to look at the topic from other contexts (gold area below):

pathways1-1

You have a defined modality (the path), and then open up ways for people to go off the path into other contexts. When allowed to mix the two, the learner would create their own customized pathway, something like this:

pathways1-2

The problem with the image above is that this really shouldn’t only be about going off the walkway in the garden to explore other contexts. Learners should be allowed to dig under the walkway, or fly above it. They should be able to dig deeper or pull back for a bird’s eye view as needed. So that would take the model into a three dimensional view like this:

pathways2

(please forgive my lack of 3-D modeling skills)

Learners can follow the instructors suggested content or go off in any direction they choose, and then change to the other modality at any moment. They can go deeper, into different contexts, deeper in different contexts, bigger picture, or bigger picture in different contexts.

The problem that we have uncovered in using this model in DALMOOC and HumanMOOC is that many learners don’t understand this design. However, many do understand and appreciate the choice… but there are some that don’t want to get bogged down in the design choices. Some that choose one modality don’t understand why the other modality needs to be in the course (while some that have chosen that “other” modality wonder the same thing in reverse). So really, all that I have been discussing so far probably needs to be relegated to an “instructional design” / “learning experience design” / “whatever you like to call it design” method. All of this talk of pathways and possibilities and modalities needs to be relegated to the design process. There are ways to tie this idea together into a cohesive learning experience through goal posts, competencies, open-ended rubrics, assignment banks, and scaffolding. Of course, scaffolding may be a third modality that sits between the other two; I’m not totality sure if it needs to be its own part or a tool in the background. Or both.

The goal of this “design method” would be to create a course that supports learners that want instructor guidance while also getting out of the way of those that want to go at it on their own. All while also recognizing that learners don’t always fall into those two neat categories. They may be different mixtures of both at any given moment, and they could change that mixture at any given point. The goal would be to design in a way that gives the learner what they need at any given point.

Of course, I think the learner needs to know that they have this choice to make. However, going too far into instructivism vs. connectivism or structured vs. unstructured can get some learners bogged down in educational theory that they don’t have time for. We need to work on a way to decrease the design presence so learners can focus on making the choices to map their learning pathway.

So the other piece to the evolution of this pathways idea is creating the tools that allow learners to map their pathway through the topic. What comes to mind is something like Storify, re-imagined as a educational mapping tool in place of an LMS. What I like about Storify is the simple interface, and the way you can pull up a whole range of content on the right side of the page to drag and drop into a flowing story on the left.

storify

I could image something like this for learners, but with a wide range of content and tools (both prescribed by the instructor, the learner, other learners, and from other places on the Internets) on the right side. Learners would drag and drop the various aspects they want into a “pathway” through the week’s topic on the left side. The parts that they pull together would contain links or interactive parts for them to start utilizing.

For example, the learner decides to look at the week’s content and drags the instructor’s introductory video into their pathway. Then they drag in a widget with a Wikipedia search box, because they want to look at bigger picture on the topic. Then they drag a Twitter hashtag to the pathway to remind themselves to tweet a specific question out to a related hashtag to see what others say. Then they drag a blog box over to create a blog post. Finally, they look in the assignment bank list and drag an assignment onto the end of the pathway that they think will best prove they understand the topic of the week.

The interesting thing about this possible “tool” is that after creating the map, the learner could then create a graph full of artifacts of what they did to complete the map. Say they get into an interesting Twitter conversation. All of those tweets could be pulled into the graph to show what happened. Then, let’s say their Wikipedia search led them to read some interesting blog posts by experts in the field. They could add those links to the graph, as well as point out the comments they made. Then, they may have decided to go back and watch the second video that the instructor created for the topic. They could add that to the graph. Then they could add a link to the blog post they created. Finally, they could link to the assignment bank activity that they modified to fit their needs. Maybe it was a group video they created, or whatever activity they decided on.

In the end, the graph that they create itself could serve as their final artifact to show what they have learned during the course. Instead of a single “gotcha!” test or paper at the end, learners would have a graph that shows their process of learning. And a great addition to their portfolios as well.

Ultimately, These maps and graphs would need to be something that reside on each learners personal domain, connecting with the school domain as needed to collect map elements.

When education is framed like this, with the learner on top and the system underneath providing support, I also see an interesting context for learning analytics. Just think of what it could look like if, for instance, instead of tricking struggling learners into doing things to stay on “track” (as defined by administrators), learning analytics could provide helpful suggestions for learners (“When other people had problems with _____ like you are, they tried these three options. Interested in any of them?”).

edugeek-journal-avatarOf course, I realized that I am talking about upending an entire system built on “final grades” by instead focusing on “showcasing a learning process.” Can’t say this change will ever occur, but for now this serves as a brief summary of where the idea of customizable pathways has been, where it is now (at least in my head, others probably have different ideas that are pretty interesting as well), and where I would like for it to go (even if only in my dreams).

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Depressing Confessions of a “Newly Minted” Ph.D.

I have been struggling with this blog post for much longer today than I probably should admit. Lots of people ask you what you are going to do “now that you have a Ph.D.” And the truth is, I really don’t know. I currently work in a nice position that requires Ph.D. level work, so its not like I am in a hurry to change things. But it is also a position that requires me to determine what I want to research, so staying put or looking elsewhere leaves me with the same confusion over “what’s next?” either way.

But why do I feel so confused over the future? This line from Jim Groom’s recent post seemed to finally clarify my hang-up:

“a bunch of folks who have been, for the most part, marginalized by the ed-tech gold rush for MOOCs, big data, analytics, etc—a push for the last four years that dominated the field’s time, energy, and precious few resources.”

There are interesting things happening in those “gold rush” areas, and also some concerning things. But our field, overall, does have a “cool” crowd and a “not so cool” crowd. If you are not currently into analytics, wearables, and a few other hot topics… you are usually left in the margins. I’m not sure if marginalized is the best word, but maybe… toiling in obscurity? For example, even bad ideas in analytics get more attention, more funding, more awards, etc, than great ideas in more obscure fields like instructional design, learning theory, etc.

That is not to slam analytics or wearables or whatever as a whole. There are some great ideas there. As Vitomir Kovanovic stated today:

The “gold rush” is often focusing on the “bad ones” at times because they can get something out there quicker. As George Siemens wisely pointed out:

So for a lot of these “hot topics,” I don’t hate them as much as see them having a long waiting period to mature into something practical. In the meantime, the instructional designer in me knows of practical ideas that can be used right now to make a dent in things.

But, the depressing truth is that these ideas will mostly always be kicking around on the fringes. When people like Mike Caufield complain about feeling obscure, and his ideas are a hundred times more popular than the ones I am interested in… it doesn’t make one want to sign up for years and years of fringe work.

Personally, I think the idea of “thought leader” is a bit along the lines of “rock star.” Others see differently, that is fine with me. But “thought leaders” are still part of the cool crowd, where as “thought synthesizers” tend to get left out of the conversation frequently. Most of the really interesting things that I like to work on, like customizable pathways design, are not really the result of “thought leaders” as much as “thought synthesizers.”

So the problem is, should I throw my lot in with the cool kids and do things that I am maybe-kind of interested in, or follow my passions into obscurity?

To be honest, I don’t really know. I am technically already in obscurity, so no where to go but up, right? A lot of this is not really about me, but the ideas that I think have great potential. They are also, unfortunately, ill-defined, poorly worded (too many syllables, which I say in all seriousness and not flippantly), not sexy, not flashy, not cool. I could very easily hitch my wagon to some ideas that are cool sounding and sexy. Someone sent me a link to a university that was looking for a Professor of Game-Based Learning that they thought I would be a good fit for. Sounds fun, flashy, hip, etc. But it was also in Texas, and let’s face it: Texas is not a great place to live (sorry if you think it is). And they pay academics poorly. I just found out this week I could get a raise if I went to teach high school down the street. Not interested in that at all, but…. ouch.

Also don’t know if I could spend all day teaching game-based learning. Not my passion. You see, I went to get a Ph.D. as a frustrated instructional designer that couldn’t get a foot in the research door because I wasn’t a professor. I wanted to follow my passions into researching ideas that made a practical difference (like many other Ph.D. students I am sure). That was five years ago, and the general state of academia has declined rapidly since then. I’m hardly enthusiastic to jump on the tenure track when that is such a minefield. If I can even get on the tenure track – that is difficult at best in the current university climate.

Oh, and now in many states students could be packing heat. So, yay safety.

edugeek-journal-avatarSo now that my pity party has been dragging on forever and will probably cost me the 6 readers I get for any post (WordPress stats are depressing as well), I leave anyone still reading this my depressing confession: if you get a Ph.D., you may end up finding yourself at a crossroads to choose between your passions and what will actually get you somewhere. If your passions line up with the cool crowd, you are lucky; if they don’t, you have a hard choice to make. I can’t tell you which one I will make. Obviously, I will be choosing very soon. But do I really want to push off in the opposite direction of the stream of hip ideas that have “dominated the field’s time, energy, and precious few resources”? It’s hard to say. But an important question to ask oneself.

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.