WebRTC and Personal Learning Environments

If you haven’t heard of WebRTC, the low down is that it “is an API definition being drafted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to enable browser-to-browser applications for voice calling, video chat, and P2P file sharing without plugins.” But it not just an idea – Ted Curran points out many working uses of WebRTC that you can just plug into your website and set up all of the above in a snap.

Now imagine connecting these ideas to the Personal Learning Environment. The idea of of a PLE can now expand just beyond content and publishing tools. Someday you might not even need to care whether you decide to use Skype, Google Hangouts, or any other big company tool de jour. You would set-up your own F2F communication interface on your website and then start interacting with others in whatever tool they use (or their web site). Certainly this is not a new idea, just one that needs more awareness.

Between WebRTC, APIs, RSS, Domain of One’s Own, and host of other tools, we are getting closer to the idea of the browser being the LMS or Learning Environment of the future (although I may be the only one that calls it that – and I just do it to help admin types understand). This may seem like a moot point to some that are happy with Blackboard and other large companies, but for those that get theory, it will be a tectonic shift from being chained to focusing on what the tools can do (because the tools are so inflexible) to truly being able to focus on the learner and/or learning experience. Instructors – how much time do you spend explaining how to use technology tools vs the amount of time you spend focusing on what students are learning? If you are like most I work with, you spend most of your time explaining again and again how and where to upload assignments, mainly due to confusing systems. Imagine what it will be like when students create their own learning environment that interfaces with yours with ease and you can worry more about actual learning?

The Web of The Future

Sometimes I miss the early days of the Web 2.0 craze. In a lot of ways, it was what spawned this website in the first place, where we used to have several contributors that would dig into the latest website looking to make it big on the Web 2.0 craze. It was always fun to see what new, weird mixes of ideas were coming along to challenge MySpace (remember them?).

I also remember all of the speculation about Web 3.0… which seems silly to even say a term like that now. But when I hear people talking about the future of the Learning Management System, or a what a true MOOC platform would look like, or our need to create an actual Personal Learning Environment tool, part of me likes to go back to those days of dreaming big and seeing what trickles out.

What of the future of the LMS/MOOC/PLE platform world isn’t one specific software design, but the next evolution of the Internet?

Before there was a “Web 2.0,” people were kind of just happy consuming content online. When they were made aware of the fact they could contribute content easily, people jumped on that opportunity left and right. But to be honest, even though the ability to do that existed for a long time before the Web 2.0 “revolution” happened, the execution was often clunky or odd. The true Web 2.0 “revolution” was about making it easier for the masses to join in. And, of course, certain other factors like the rise of high-speed internet and faster processing power helped immensely. But few people sat around wishing it would happen – it just seemed to appear overnight, fueled by a few skilled visionaries.

What if the next “revolution” in the Internet gives people the ability to remix the web itself? For example, if you wanted a site that had certain features of Facebook, a few Twitter options, the ability to interface with email, and the look of Tumblr, you would just click a few boxes and – Presto! – instant custom web platform for your specific purposes.

In a way, you can do a lot of this already if you know some serious coding. Or you want to tear apart WordPress or Drupal or some other open-source program. But what if someday we get the “Web 2.0-moment” where all of a sudden we can remix the Internet at will?

What this could mean is that we would have no one specific platform to rule over all LMS/MOOC/PLE needs. When you really think about it, the push to figure out what a MOOC platform “should” look like has a bit of a One Ring feel to it.

What if every instructor could remix tools to create whatever platform they needed for their class? What if students could remix tools to create whatever platform they wanted to learn through? Take the friend request function from Facebook, rename it “learn request”, mix it with the Twitter feed and hashtags, mix in some Tumblr magic for easy re-sharing, plug-in Digg’s ability to tag and comment on things, add Disqus ability to port comments across sites, and whip it together with Google’s search algorithms to help you find certain things in the mass stream and BOOM – there is your PLE that you plop onto your own domain. Or this remix is your “course” /community that you deliver your class through.

People are talking about remixing content – which is great idea. But I want to be able to remix the Web itself. And I want a quick, easy interface to be able to do so on the fly. And then change it next semester if I need to.

Getting to There From Here in The Education Revolution

So I like to write a lot about where all of these big ideas in education are heading and what learning might look like in the future. Often I skip ahead by a good bit and seem to leave out several important steps. But that does not mean that I don’t think about these steps that we as a field need to take to get to this glorious revolutionary future. In reality, I think these steps are more fascinating. But I tend to focus on some of these steps in my work and studies so much that they rarely make it onto this blog. So, here it is – the steps I think we need to take (in broad strokes) to get from where we are now to this awesome future of educational bliss.

Assuming, of course, that Universities don’t die before all of this happens.

  1. Expand Student Community Options. If we want a student-centered educational future, then we need to build in support systems for students. Especially as education becomes more distance-oriented. We used to rely on dorms rooms and libraries and social events to allow students the opportunity to form support and mentor-ship relationships. With those physical spaces being non-existent for online students and irrelevant for non-traditional students, we need to build more opportunities for informal interaction using social media, online tools, and even formal course structures that push students to build portfolios and online presences more than just grades. This is something that I have started working on in a small-scale form with a peer mentor-ship program for a doctoral program (and there are many others out there). But I think we still need to see a greater movement around this idea, more on the level of MOOC-hype than “oh, yeah, I think I know some  people that are working on this” kind of reaction.
  2. Give Students Control Over their Online Identity. One barrier to student community is the disconnected nature of social media due to the existence of so many options. Why create a portfolio when you have Facebook and LinkedIn, right? But owning your identity online protects learners in many ways, not the least of which is the ability to take your identity with you rather than start over with every new social service that forms. Jim Groom covers a lot of the reasons why this step is important in this blog post. I’m glad there is major work happening on this front at the University of Mary Washington. Just wish more of the world was paying attention.
  3. Incorporate Informal Learning. Personal Learning Networks and Lifelong learning are not new ideas, so this is an area that we already see growing at many universities. But at some point it has to go beyond a “cool idea” with some loose administrative support to an actual, integral part of the learning experience. Sounds kind of weird to make informal learning a part of the formal learning process, so I’m not really thinking of that as much as finding ways to acknowledge the informal sphere and utilize it in the formal sphere. As students gain more control over their online identity, this will become more feasible and practical.
  4. Build a Course Taxonomy System. Ever noticed that most course descriptions and even syllabuses don’t really tell you much about how a course really ends up working out? Wish you could easily know how student-centered (or not) a course is rather than paper due dates? Ever want to know what percentage of time will be spent on group assignments across all of the courses you take so that you won’t get burdened down carrying dead weight in too many classes? With course types diversifying and changing more and more rapidly, we are in more need than ever of a way to classify courses according to what students will really, actually get when they take the course. This would tie into the development and evaluation of courses in order to ensure accuracy. This is another area that I have started work on, and hope to have some more concrete answers and ideas over the next couple of years.
  5. Deconstructing Courses.  This is already happening with what is sometimes referred to as cMOOCs – open courses that rely on connectivism and open learning. “Open” has basically devolved into another word for “free” in many circles, so I tend to refer to true”open” courses as ones that have deconstructed the learning experience into something beyond the typical “sit and soak” learning method. Yes, you do see that still prevalent in many xMOOCs. What I would like to see as a further evolution of open courses are courses that allow for multiple entry points through out the semester, or even courses that allow students to skip past what they already know. Different entities have experimented with this through the years, but for the most part they seem to still focus on the course level (aka, you can test out of a whole course rather than part of it). At some point I think this will have to go more mainstream to allow for true educational revolution.
  6. Re-focus Big Data. Love or hate it, Big Data is here to stay. I’m always a fan of more knowledge, and Big Data does give us more knowledge.  If schools want to use it to take a big picture look at statistics, that is great. If programs want to use it to identify student problems, great. But I am more interested in the projects that help students learn more about themselves beyond “hey, I’m about to start failing this course.” I briefly spoke to Dr. Kinshuk at CELDA a few weeks ago about a dynamic profile system they are developing for helping student determine their learning preferences. This is important because if students fill out their own questionnaire for learning preferences, they will skew the data to what they think looks good. But what if we could just gather data from their every day school work to determine that? Or to determine what course types they prefer (connecting back to taxonomies above)? If our schools become more student-centered, then why not give students the data to understand who they are?
  7. Deconstructing Degree Plans. Once we have all of these other ways to deconstruct learning and use data and websites to support student learning, the next thing we can do is go big and really mess with things.  If we have deconstructed courses to the point that they allow for students to take what they need as well as mix and match course components, why not take that idea to the degree level? This is not a new idea, but for the most part custom degree plans are given an anonymous sounding name like “University Scholar” and then are basically still a succession of courses that have to be taken as courses – even if students know some of the material already. What if we allow students to create self-selected paths through through the material for specific degrees? What if a chemistry major could put together a truly customized degree that allows them to skip what they got in high school and dig into advanced topics and research? What if the student was creating stream of study through basic topics, with new topics/courses starting and stopping based on what the student’s data tells them about their learning needs?
  8. Return to Deconstructing Courses More. I think once you deconstruct the degree plan, you can then return to deconstruct courses even more. In fact, it could be that the two would go in cycles – deconstruct the course some, then deconstruct the degree plans around them, then repeat. Eventually you would want to see cyclical course paths that allows students to circle back to concepts they didn’t get, or maybe even back to stuff they were really interested in in order to dig in deeper. On top of that, you could to see students of different levels in “courses” at the same time, so that students that have been taking a “course” for a few weeks could mentor those that just entered. I use the term “course” loosely now because, well, we would need a word for whatever this is… but it would not really resemble a “course” as much as a learning community or personal learning network.
  9. Open Up Research and Practicum/Internship Opportunities. Seems like this goes back to what we are doing today with learning, but often it seems like there is still a distinction between “academic” courses and “practicum” courses. For students that are more interested in a topic, there should be natural extensions into the world beyond the Ivory Tower – through participating in research projects with professors to working with professionals in the field. Or, for the non-traditional learner that is working and studying, why does the time spent on the clock at a job have to be separate from when they are “learning” in a classroom? Why not find ways to connect the two? Well, we don’t do that great of a job with it now because all of the previous steps have not fully come to fruition. But we still see places like Antioch College that are doing interesting things in this area, so I think that eventually we will see that happening more often.

I know that I had 11-12 steps in my mind when I first thought of this idea late last night.. so I apologize if I have left anything important out. I know there is nothing in here about certain technologies like gaming, mobile devices, and 3-D printers. All of those are important, of course, but they are still tools that support the larger view of education and this post is meant to try and start to put some structure around this emerging idea of the “future of education” in my head.

So what we have is a student-centered, open, deconstructed, unschooled, cyclical, connectivist, sociocultural customized learning structure for students to work with peer mentors, faculty, more knowledgeable others, other students, and industry experts to learn in ways that utilize informal learning, life experience, contextual learning, personal analytics, and personal learning networks. Man… how many buzzwords can I cram into one sentence?

Are We Finally Seeing the Equalization of Student-Centered Learning?

Student-centered learning seems to be a love it or hate it affair. I fall on the side of loving it, but I also recognize the difficulties in implementing it. Technology improves our ability to realize the concept, but also falls very short of the finish line. With the rise of the idea of Personal Learning Environments/Networks, I think most people assumed that we finally had technology that was close enough, so they just called it even and moved on. MOOCs were also claimed by the student-centered learning crowd, even though the version that is popular now is not student-centered at all.

But if you were looking in-depth at most PLE ideas/concepts/etc, what you usually saw was something still either slightly or majorly lopsided, leaning heavily towards the instructor to create the space, pull the content together, organize everything, and probably even do some heavy coding on top of all of it. You really still had learning that was always centered on the teacher with several satellites (students) providing the supporting material. Switching the focus of the class on to the work of any student or group of students would have been akin to switching the center of our solar system from the sun to Jupiter – the basic design of reality just didn’t allow for that possibility no matter how much you wanted it to.

A recent post by Jim Groom lays out a newer idea of having the students take on the role of pushing content to courses rather than having courses pull in the content. The technology is not quite there yet, but it is exciting nonetheless. Back when I created this diagram…


…there were a few parts that I added that I wasn’t too sure of. The main one being the two way arrow between the student/teacher PLN and the learning space. The only way I knew of to push content back to a learning space was to create a Word Doc or a Permalink or whatever and physically “submit” it to and “assignment” area in an LMS. Technically it works, but that is still archaic, segmented, closed, and frankly a pain in the rear half the time. The idea of a student’s website pushing content solves those issues. The second concern was with putting the teachers outside of the learning space and in the cloud of learners. Many want to be there, but if they have to constantly go back to the “Learning Space” to pull in content and keep it running, eventually they will just squat there and pull the focus of the class back on themselves. Push technology allows instructors more freedom to move and stay outside of the learning space, interacting with students as learners themselves.

(I’m still not happy with the “Learning Space” descriptor… “Course admin” is probably more accurate, but I want to avoid the idea of a “course.” It’s probably more of “Admin Buffer” to collect objects of learning to prove to the powers that be that learners deserve the certificate/grade/degree they are earning. The “open learning server” should probably just be more accurately labeled “College/School/Organization Admin” and list other things such as “Certification” as a function. So I guess you can expect to see a v5.3.2 or whatever version I am up to of this diagram, especially since I really need to switch the learners to the center of the diagram and not the side.)

The next thing I would like to see is a way for assignment banks to be shared across courses, in a way that lets instructors mix and match their own categories and submit their own assignment ideas for others to use.

So, anyways, go to Groom’s post to see the technical details and also some of the other ideas and possibilities that others are throwing in there. I have been sending some of UMW’s ideas and projects to the University I adjunct for, but some of you may have more control over actually trying out these ideas… so why not give it a shot and let them know how it goes?

Heading Towards a Post-Course Era?

A few weeks a go, this quote was posted by Dr. Semingson of UT Arlington:

“Today, courses may be better thought of as tools to manage time, staff, and resources or as building blocks for the discipline. However, the bounded, self-contained course can no longer be the central unit of analysis of the curriculum because it may no longer be the place where the most significant learning takes place. In the ‘postcourse era,’ learning occurs through inquiry and participation, social connections (e.g., blogs, wikis), and reflection.” – IT as a game changer, by Diana Oblinger

With all of the focus on MOOCs as anything from “Game Changer” to “University Killer”, I think we are missing larger ideas like this one. MOOCs (at least the xMOOC variety that gets all of the press) are really just another form of modularized assessment, one that will most likely not be considered individually once the degree or certificate (or whatever it may be) is earned. When employers are conducting interviews, do they more often that not want the transcript (list of modular accomplishments) or the resume (summary of accomplishments at a macro level)?

More often than not, employers are looking at applicants from a macro level. They want to know how future employees are pulling all of the pieces together to be a well-rounded contributor to society, business, etc, etc.

Many colleges are aware of this and have responded by adding portfolios and cohorts and other organizational ideas to their degree plans. But even in these cases the course is still the “central unit” or main focus of the assessment of learning. What if we could see inquiry, participation, social connections, and reflection become that central unit? Classes would still be a good way to manage resources or add some building blocks to the overall picture, but the shift would be away from rigid walls and divisions and onto how a learner connects, synthesizes, reflects, and participates with the larger community of learners.

Open learning (which is not just MOOCs) is poised to push this idea forward. Instead of killing or destroying universities, openness can be the concept that turns the tide in favor of the “post-course” era. Portfolios and cohorts can grow into the forum where the most significant learning takes place.

A lot of this has been on my mind recently as I set out to start working on a peer mentor-ship program that has the possibility to be seeding ground for these ideas. I remember a few years ago when I had this crazy idea of “If We Ditch The LMS, How Then Could We Change Colleges?“:

When a student wants to take a course, they would sign up to “follow” an instructor in that instructor’s personal teaching environment (which could also even be a classroom in the real world for all it matters).  They would work through the material and assignments at their pace, moving quickly through what they already know and slowing down on the stuff that they need more time on.  Once they have completed the projects, the instructor could look at them and say “great job – you are finished and ready to move on.”  Or the instructor could say “you are not quite there – spend a few more weeks in class and see how that will change your project.”  Or maybe even “that is something I have never thought of – you pass, but could you stay on a few more weeks and teach us what you have found here?”

So this would be a little bit chaotic.  Students would be moving through the material at their own pace, following the research that instructors add, adding their own research, and creating projects.  New students would be joining each week and interacting with students that are half way through and maybe even about to finish.

I’m considering circling around to these ideas again to see what still has relevancy and what was just pointless hype. But the idea of tearing down the rigid course structure has the true feel of disruption.  MOOCs that just digitize the lecture hall experience? Not so much.

Open Learning Structure Part 3

So as I have been looking at what, for lack of better words, would be the “basics” of open learning. I have been adding different layers and ideas to the original ones examined in part 1. In part 2, I added how the various Learning Spaces would interact with each other. This post will look a bit at how the student Personal Learning Networks would interact with the overall idea.

Due to recent announcements from Blackboard, I have been waiting a bit to see how their new directions will fit into the Open Learning world. I attended a sneak preview of their next generation product, and to be honest… I am not sure. It seems like they are recreating Facebook as a learning-centered social network in some ways. But there are ways to connect to external services like Facebook and Twitter. So a lot of that remains to be seen – but that can be figured out later. For now, on to the new and improved open learning diagram:

Personal Learning Environments / Networks

If you are online, you probably already have a PLE or PLN. Possibly even both. The network would be the people you follow, read, etc regardless of platform – as well as the people that read and follow you. The environment would be the tool or tools you use to bring in everything you want to read – like Google Reader, a list of certain topical pages on Facebook, or something else like that. If you use them, then you would use several environments to create your network. The main idea is that no two people create the same PLE/N, but they all interact with each other.

We all know that we can control our identity in our own PLE/N. We can post anonymously in some places, as ourselves in others, and as a fictitious pseudo-name in others. I have already touched on how this is important for privacy issues. I just want to touch base with the idea again to re-enforce the point that many others (Siemens, Downes, Groom, Cormier, etc) have made: open learning gives students more control over their identity and therefore fulfills the original intent of FERPA and other privacy measures.

The downside to realize is that students will need much, much, more education on what that control means.

So, back to the diagram. I made another change in that the Student PLE looks more like a cloud of environments, rather than just one static shape. This is more in line with how a PLE/N really works. So many things over lap out there on the web. Many students work together. Many students go off on a side tangent and discuss or investigate things that are external to the course topic. All of this is a valid part of the learning process. It is impossible to draw hard, fast lines in this cloud – I really just put an arrow there to highlight what could happen, but it is really not that neat and tidy.

Another important facet to point out is that the arrow between a specific student’s PLE/N and the Learning Space goes both ways, as students can also learn from the instructor as well as submit new ideas and concepts to be learned by the instructor. In reality, the Learning Space would not necessarily be where you would place the instructor on this diagram. They would be one of many nodes existing out in the “cloud” of PLE/Ns. This is why the diagram says “Student / Teacher PLE / N” – the instructors would be the administrators of the Learning Space and the guides of what students learn, but ultimately they would be in the network sharing and learning along with the students.

The bigger picture would look like a huge cloud of PLE/Ns. As you get closer to the school itself, this cloud would form more order and organization, as students and teachers make sense of what they are learning. The Learning Spaces would form the technology barrier between the chaotic learning cloud and the learning institutions. These spaces would be where learning is observed, where ideas are organized into assignments, where interaction is organized into discussions. This organized content would be sent to the university or other institution for analysis, proof of learning, statistics  etc. But this organization would also be spit back out into the cloud of learning for others to learn from, tear through, re-organize, re-mix, etc.

The idea is to have a constantly moving, changing, chaotic, living, growing, breathing process of learning rather than the static, predictable  unidirectional process that we currently have.

Open Learning Structure Part 2

So in part 1 of taking a bird’s eye view of open learning structure, I focused mainly on the authentication issues surrounding privacy as well as the basic flow of information in an open learning structure. I wasn’t intending to do a series, but a few good questions and comments made me realize that  I needed to expand on the parts that I didn’t focus on and look at some of the basics of how they would also work. It also became evident that I needed to expand the diagram a bit. So, with that, I want to look a bit at the Instructor Space which – based on Alan Levine (@cogdog) excellent comment – has been renamed:

Learning Space

The basic idea is that the learning space could be anything that the instructor or learner thinks works best for the class. It can be set-up ahead of time by a teacher or group of teachers, or mutually agreed upon by the learners and/or teachers. It could be a Learning Management System, a blog, a Facebook page, or a combination of many things. This differs from the standard institutional approach where one tool (usually an LMS) is adopted for everybody and then individual instructors and learners have to figure out how to adapt their learning to fit in that mold.

This touches on a key idea for an open learning concept of a learning space – the learning space is more of an aggregation point, not THE place that all learning “happens.” The learning space would aggregate content from many spaces and then export that content so that learners would still interact with the course through their own personal learning environment. The instructor also interacts with the class through the learning space of their choice. No one has to really learn to use a new system or force things to work in a giant LMS because they are using the tools that they have been using all along. Or, optionally, they can choose to change to something they think will work better.

Or, at least, that is the idea. As Jim Groom pointed out on Twitter, the technology is not quite there yet.

Once it is, I think there will really be two parts to the Learning Space. One is the instructor’s own Personal Learning Network, where they can pull in ideas from other experts, articles, current events, and all kinds of other content. As George Siemens has pointed out, instructors need to avoid teaching alone – so pulling in others in very important. The other part of the Learning Space would be the aggregation and distribution tools that export this content out to the learners, as well as importing student work for review and distribution.

Another aspect of the aggregation part of a Learning Space is the technical aspect of authentication. In some arenas this exists – in others, not so much. Technology already lets an instructor open up their course to let anyone join in. Blogs, RSS readers, and even LMS applications let guests in. But there is also going to be the case where students need to be authenticated with official records to allow for credit, grades, etc. Technological architecture and standards need to be developed that allow students to go to any random learning space and log in with official school credentials. This login would be securely authenticated with school servers. Students then have an account on the learning space where they control their identity. They can connect their blog, Twitter feed, or whatever to that account. The student, say Freddie Smith, would then choose to use his real name or a complete alias. Only the instructor and the software running on secure connections would know that the “AllKnowingOne’s Blog” is also Freddie Smith. Freddie could also change his privacy per course he is taking – if one course seems a bit too personal he can stay anonymous where as in another course about basic concepts he can use his real name. The control would be on a per class basis, totally up to the learner.

Another important reason that this authentication piece is important is that to “remain in ‘compliance with federal distance education regulations’ you have to login through a centralized, campus-wide authentication system” as Jim Groom recently blogged about. There are ways to do this with different systems, but not so much with others. Once the technology advances a little, hopefully we will see a streamlined set of standards that can be plugged into any system from WordPress to Google to whatever else comes down the road.

So, adding the next piece of the puzzle to the Open Learning Structure diagram, we come up with this:

This shows the added element of instructors interacting with their own PLE to add to the Learning Space. In Part 3, I want to look more at the Student PLE piece of the diagram by adding another arrow representing a different flow of information.

Open Learning Structure Part 1

Open learning is becoming the new social learning – a “well-used” term that may quickly become a cliche if too many companies keep over-using it to hype their agenda. MOOCs are all the rage now, but sometimes you get the sense that few people really get what is going on. I have been following MOOCs from the beginning and I still don’t get what is going on fully – so I kind of sit back and wonder who all these “experts” are that different companies pull out to support their newest money making venture. Funny how money can suddenly drum up a whole slew of experts ex nihilo….

But, reservations aside about who might hijack the idea, open learning still has a grand hint of promise that just can’t be denied. Jim Groom has a great post about the architecture and structure needed to run open courses. This brought me back to the time when “social learning” was still a new, interesting concept and Harriet and I came up with the Social Learning Manifesto. The basic idea of the diagram that we put out there is still a good illustration of what is happening in education, so I thought I would pull that out, dust it off, update it a bit, and use it as a good starting point to show a bird’s eye view of what is needed. So, instead of a Social Learning Network, I bring you…

Open Learning Structure

(and it is mainly just “structure” because I didn’t feel like typing ‘architecture’ over and over and over again)

When I think of open learning, I get a basic idea of three separate arenas: the school/institution space, the instructor space, and the student space. All three are connected to each other, but the nature of those connections are slightly different.

First of all, you have a institutional server of some kind that replaces and institutional LMS. Yes, I said replaces. If you look at everything on the diagram, there is just not much need for a centralized LMS. The institutional server provides a hub for authentication, grade storage, identity protection, objective repositories, and archiving.

Students have their own Personal Learning Environment or Network. This is already pre-existing, but can be expanded or upgraded as needed depending on the class. Students can use the PLE to protect their privacy if wanted – they can be as anonymous or personal as they want to through their own network (and that can change from day to day or even course by course). This is the ultimate realization of FERPA – giving students control over what they share and don’t share. This is where the student creates their objects to be shared with the instructor and/or world. You can see from the diagram or the social learning manifesto how that would work.

Sitting between these two hubs is the most important part – but also the one that is the least realized as far as existing software is concerned. The instructor space would be where authentication happens, where assignments and activities are posted, where students submit work, and where students also protect their privacy. Students would authenticate through the instructor space – where they have the option to connect to their work through their name or through an alias. They can also submit unlisted or private links that only the instructor is granted access to. The red circle running through the diagram is the privacy line (FERPA line if you are in the U.S.) – students connect over that line how they want to, using the instructor space as a secure tunnel to do so and a firewall to protect anything they want.

We don’t have that piece fully yet – but it probably won’t be long. An important idea to also note is that this diagram shows only one school as a hub – but that doesn’t have to be so in every instance. Students from different schools could authenticate through the same instructor space just by having an additional drop down of schools to pick from. The software would then route the authentication through to the appropriate institution. But the main idea is that we can stop thinking of courses as belonging to one school.

So, if you think of this diagram in a three-dimensional sense, with lines running in all directions and connecting all pieces – you get the idea of how beautiful open learning could end up being in the future.

(Note: after getting several good questions here and on twitter, I am going to expand this post with 2-3 more parts. This post looks mainly at Authentication and Privacy/Admin issues. Based on Alan Levine’s comment I think the “Instructor Space” will be turned into a “Learning Space.” Part 2 will look at the Learner Space in more detail, and then Part 3 will examine the Student PLE. I am also considering a Part 4 to look at why we need to examine this and what is the use of this structure over an LMS. The diagram above will also evolve as more pieces are added in future posts.)

The Battle For Openness In The LMS Market

Last year it seemed like every new LMS company was trying to position itself as the “Facebook” of online learning. Then Facebook started to make everyone angry (or bored, or both), and we saw that idea dry up pretty quick (well, for the most part). The new catch phrase battle seems to be heating up over the words “open” and “free.” Both Pearson and Blackboard are racing to establish either part or all of their services as open and/or free.

Many people have examined the concepts of open and free to see where various companies stack up. But of course, a lot of this is hard since few people have been inside of Pearson’s OpenClass.

Pearson is lifting the veil a bit more by releasing some screen shots of their OpenClass platform (although, anyone that has been reading this site for a while or attended one of my presentations with Harriet knows that mock-ups and screen shots of ideas are pretty easy to come by). The OpenClass screen shots look nice and they look like they integrate with Google well. But to be honest, anyone that wants notifications of new Gmail messages or Google docs can just as easily install any one of a large number of extensions for Chrome or Firefox or any number of browsers. Google docs are pretty easy to embed or add users to, so I know there will be a long line of people pointing out that you can already do what these screen shots show with just a few extra steps. Busy instructors will love this, of course, because saving steps and integrating products easily is always a welcome move in their world.

What we have shaping up here is basically a “Googlized” Blackboard with probably a healthy portion of Apple-esque eas-ability of use thrown in. That is not necessarily bad – these are all welcome steps forward for the LMS.

But it still only really brings us into the 1990s. What about those instructors that don’t want to use Google services? What about those courses that use specific web tools for specific reasons based on the specifics of the field they are in?  How hard will it be to plug in embed codes or APIs from non-Google services?

It might end up being very easy. But this is still not the open I am looking for. This is also not what I would consider the iPhone moment that the LMS market needs. Whether you build a system around Blackboard’s core code or around Google, you are still building it around a specific system and you will only be able to let in what that system lets in.

The whole point behind the “New Vision LMS” was that it needs to be built from the ground up to be open to any system that you could want to plug into it. The subway terminal concept could basically be that iPhone moment, if it is designed well. It would also be the true “openness” that I am looking for.

For different reasons, many of the usual uses for the term “open” are not exactly what I am looking for when I want open. They are all great, but I still think there is more. These uses include:

  • Open as in open source code. I’m a big supporter of open-source software. But you can still install open-source programs like Moodle and then clamp them down so tight that they don’t feel open to the users.
  • Exportable content. You can make your LMS software open by making it easy to export classes to course cartridges and other common formats. If you design your course well from the beginning it wouldn’t be that hard to re-design it in another LMS. So easy export is nice, but not that big of deal in my experience (and this is coming from some one who has had to migrate hundreds of courses from at least four different LMS systems through the years – open export formats are nice, but not  a necessity). If you place all of your content on sites like WordPress and then link to them, exporting isn’t that hard.
  • Free to Access Outside the LMS. Blackboard’s recent announcement that you will be able to make courses “open” is nice, but you still have to use the Blackboard system to design those courses. Some instructors want their content out there and free for anyone to be able to see. And there are still ways to do that inside of Blackboard and other LMS systems. In fact, I teach a course that technically works like that.

All of these are great, but to some degree we already have all of these somewhere. To me, a truly open system is one that lets you use any tool you want, and then that will be imported into the system and organized so that learners can follow each other easily. Which also means that this organized activity will be exported out in any way that students want so they can follow course activity using any tool they wish.

And of course, this system would need to scale easily from small courses of specialized learners to massive open courses.

In other words, we still need that tool that can organize Personal Learning Networks to allow learners to focus in on specific classes or assignments when they need to. But also a tool that easily integrates with other school systems (like enrollment, emergency notifications, grade tracking, etc).

That is the kind of iPhone moment I am looking for. Of course, the iPhone isn’t really what anyone would call open… so the metaphor breaks down if you look at it too closely. But I think you know what I am getting at.

Re-Thinking Everything And The Realization of PLEs

In my last post about re-thinking everything in online education, I don’t think I made it clear that I was thinking about a specific technological breakthrough and not an idea like “Personal Learning Environments.” Personally, I love the idea of PLEs, but in some ways the technology to make them practical just isn’t there yet. Sure, we can tinker with several tools and sites out there to make something that “works,” but at the same time we can also tinker with Blackboard to make it “work.”

Many people are just not going to flock to an idea that you have to tinker with to make it “work.” I’m seeing a growing amount of PLE burn-out out there – people just getting to the point that they can’t keep up with it all. So they run back into the LMS box. Of course, they hate the box, but don’t have time for the PLE route.

This all reminds me of how smart phones were before the iPhone came along. Certain types loved their Crackberries and Palm Pilots, but most people just avoided them and some analysts predicted that the smart phone had grown as far as it would. They were often confusing and clunky. The technology got in the way of the average user embracing them.

Then the iPhone came in and changed everything.

The iPhone came along and made the technology disappear so that people could easily embrace the functionality without a confusing user’s manual. Then other phones followed and you now have hundreds of millions using essentially the same apps to do the same things on different devices. Whether you use an iPhone or a Droid or whatever, they all have a Facebook app so that you can post any thought to Facebook wherever you are at.

I’m thinking we need an iPhone moment for PLEs. The PLE as a concept needs that game changer tech to come along and make it accessible for the masses. A game changer that will make the tech issues disappear. Something that just “works” rather than making you do all the work to get the desired effect. A game changer that will make others follow and create different flavors for different people… while at the same time forcing the Crackberries of the LMS world re-think everything to try and compete.

That’s what I am looking for the in the online educational world. There are many promising ideas out there, but nothing is quite hitting that sweet spot yet.