The Long Road To Re-Thinking Everything In Online Learning

As many of you know, I have been trying to come up with something new. I’m not even sure what it is supposed to be. I just know I haven’t seen “it” yet. I see parts of “it” here and there, but I still just don’t know what “it” is I am looking for.

But the LMS-based mentality of online learning has got to go. Even the newest version of Blackboard still makes me feel like I am in AOL circa 1995.

I’m not necessarily talking about course design or structure. There are some great ideas out there, everything from MOOCs to information foraging are popping up all the time. The biggest hurdle for all of these great open / social / connectivistic / whatever you want to call it designs is that technology is just not there yet to make them work perfectly. You can do a lot of great things with the whole DIY mentality… but often I get the feeling there could be so much more if we could just stumble on the right technology.

I read today about Google possibly starting another “structured web programming” language called Dart. Some are thinking that it will be just a language that solves “Googlecentric” problems.  In some ways, maybe this something that education needs – education-centric technology to solve educational problems.

Maybe not our own programming language… but that is not a bad idea either. I used to dabble with Moodle extensions, and it was always frustrating to figure out how to “trick” php and javascript into doing what I needed it to do.

I have previously discussed how Rockmelt made me wonder if we could make a similar browser for education… basically, make the LMS become a browser instead of a web silo.  That could be interesting, but kind of leaves mobile learning a bit out of the picture in some cases.

Does the technology behind EdTech need to go the app route? Does the LMS need to leave the confines of “website” and evolve into a new form of technology? I’m not sure yet.  But whatever happens, we need this new idea to meet several criteria:


  • Integrated. It needs to integrate into our everyday web activities. When we have those a-ha moments on Facebook, or find a great article that would be useful for our group project, or whatever the case make be… sharing it with our class needs to be just few clicks or swipes away while we stay on the object. Not a few clicks, surf to a different site, log in, copy-and-paste, click, click, click, submit, log-out, surf back to reality.
  • Open. Education is going the open route. You can’t share what is closed, and surprise… people like to share!
  • Flexible. Every feature that you use on a desktop would also be available in a tablet, a smart phone, or whatever comes along next.
  • Search-able and Easy To Organize. I know some would say that we could just use Facebook or Google+ for all of this. The problem with those approaches are that it is really hard to find anything older than, say, 2 hours there. With learning, you need to go back and examine what you have shared and tagged. you need to dig into it and see what else you can find. There are a hundred reasons why… but you need to be able to go back and find everything. That is tedious at best on social networking sites.

There are some interesting projects out there that I think are doing great work in many of these areas, but no one has a product (or even a DIY solution) that meets all of these criteria.

Another New Blackboard Competitor Arrives: Coursekit

Katrina turned me on to a new Course Management System called CourseKit.  The kicker about this one is that it was conceived and designed by three students with full time course loads because they weren’t happy with Blackboard.

First of all, I have to say that if students are having problems with Blackboard, to the point that they want to create their own alternative… that should say something. The point that it is three full time students creating this should make the rest of us stop and ask ourselves why we haven’t done the same.

So far, I like what I see from Coursekit.  They wanted it to be simple and fun, and they got simple and fun. It was designed to resemble Facebook and you can easily post links, images, and comments on the course wall.

The flip-side is that it is still another one-size-fits-all option.  If you want something different, you can post a link to it, of course (but you can also do that in Blackboard).  It still feels like it is a walled garden, even if the walls are getting lower.  But it is also still pretty new, so that may change.

There is a basic fundamental difference between this and the social learning environment (SLE) that we have been writing and presenting about.  In Coursekit, you still basically use the tools and interface provided to you in the box.  In an SLE, both the instructor and students choose to use whatever tools are out there and then tells the SLE where they are. The SLE would aggregate those and then combine them in one place to be exported to the interface that the students or instructor chooses (and everyone could have a different one).

But, that idea is still probably a few years from being accepted by even the bleeding edge folks (I say that knowing that most EGJ readers are probably miles ahead of even the bleeding edge types out there).  So, given the choice between complex and clunky and simple and fun, I would take simple and fun any day.

(sidenote: I do know that Moodle 2.0 has taken great strides in integrating with external sites rather than just linking to them.  It just has so many changes and I am so busy that it is taking me forever to wrap my head around it all.  Expect some posts about Moodle2.0 at some point in the future).

If We Ditch The LMS, How Then Could We Change Colleges?

Up until now, as I have pondered the future of LMS, I have been mainly focusing on the basic level of courses.  In the back of my head has been this swirling idea of how colleges could change if we had a better system for delivering courses.  This idea is very incomplete and I can already see a large number of “yeah, buts…” in it.  But I want to throw it out there and see how it shakes out.

First of all, I have to start by saying that this model will be based primarily on courses that have moved away from standardized testing and rigid assessment-based outcomes.  I know that there are some uses for multiple choice tests in some cases… but those are very few.  Definitely not in proportion to what we see used currently.  I also believe that many courses benefit when the instructors release some control (maybe even a lot of control) and let the students be more active and even chaotic in their learning.  This system is based on these assumptions.  If you don’t agree… you might want to look elsewhere.  It could get scary here in a minute.

Okay – so let us say that you adopt a social learning environment for your college.  This would basically mean that your students are now following instructors as they share resources rather than just enrolling in a course for lectures.  These resources could be lectures, research, or current events.  The idea is that students would now follow instructors as they research their topics rather than just get a set of preplanned lectures. Instructors would get to research more and get a larger set of eyes to help them keep an eye on the world as it constantly evolves.  Students would get current, up-to-date information with real world usage.

The next part is personalized projects or assignments instead of standardized testing. If you are now using personalized projects to evaluate how well students have learned the material, students could really take as long as they needed in a course and work through at their pace.  It also wouldn’t matter if new students were mixed with veterans, because the projects would be personal and the veterans could be a source of help. It would also save the instructor from having to read 100 essay papers that all say basically the same thing over and over.

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 though 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.  But since the projects are personalized and application-based – this is okay.  Students could probably even help each other – which is more like real life operates anyways. When students have finished the course, they move on to the next one.

Now this sounds workable for one course at a time – but most college students take more than that.  In a new system like this, students would probably have several “streams” of courses – they lay out a couple of different paths through all the courses they want to take, and then work through each path at the pace that is best for them.  Each stream could be moving at different paces, but you as a student would be in several streams at once.  The number of streams may even determine if you are half or full time.  A student could have, say, a “basics” stream, a language stream, an art stream, etc.

There are several things that could provide difficult in this system.  Vacations and holidays would not be that big of a problem – just like in real life, you pause for the time off and then pick up when you come back.  But what happens when a professor quits? Theoretically, you could have students following professors from all over the world and their “college” is the local place for them to interact, socialize, and do things like Science labs.  The logistics behind that is kind of crazy, but interesting.  However, there are times when professors just retire or quit teaching.  With no real end point for courses – what happens to the students that aren’t finished yet?  Or what about smaller courses that only happen once a year because only 6 students take them?  A lot of things to think about, but you get the idea of where this is heading. True personalized any time, any where learning.

If We Ditch The LMS, What Else Could We Re-think?

So if we take the Social Learning Environment Manifesto seriously and re-imagine the LMS as a personal teaching environment (PTE), what other parts of education could we re-think along with that?  There are two ideas that I want to look at – one is how to re-think the entire structure of colleges if we were to use PTEs instead of LMSs, and the other is what if the PTE was actually a browser instead of a website.  I’ll get to re-thinking college structure in the next post (because I am still chewing on that one), but first I want to ponder using a browser instead of a website.

In the past, I have thought about using the browser as an LMS, but it seems like the whole Opera Unite concept never really took off.  But I was looking at the new Rockmelt browser and the thought kind of hit me – this could be the new online classroom – open, outside of the walled garden, and flexible. Chris Duke and others have blogged about this, so it probably didn’t hit me as much as morphed out of other people”s ideas.  Most of these ideas come from more of the angle of connecting to Blackboard or some other existing tool and porting that to the browser.  I am thinking of creating the browser from the ground up to be the online classroom.

You’ll probably need to be familiar with Rockmelt to follow the rest of this, so make sure and at least go watch their intro video.  But I’ll start with describing a feature in Rockmelt and then how I think that could be used in a new learning browser.

Rockmelt connects to your Facebook account at start up

Obviously, Rockmelt only works because it connects to a website (Facebook).  So, a browser-based social learning environment would need a website to track settings and user feeds and all of that. But what if, instead of Facebook, your browser connected to PTE of each instructor for each course you are in?   You would obviously need to be able to switch from course to course, but a simple drop-down could do that.  You would need a centralized place to store your courses, which may be based at a school, or could even be each student’s personal learning environment.  In any case, the sign-on would need to expand a bit to include a web address for this centralized list, as well as your username and password.  And there would probably need to be a standardized programming language or API to make all this work seamlessly.

Rockmelt has a “ribbon” along the left side that show your Facebook friends that are online

This could be replaced with your classmate’s online status.  This could be set to only show students in the current course you are viewing or all students in all courses you are in. The instructor would be in there also, possibly connected to not just a profile but an online virtual office, complete with office hours.

Rockmelt has another ribbon along the right side that has buttons for you to bring up streams of Facebook and Twitter activity.

In place of this would be streams for each assignment or discussion or whatever in your course. Instead of just puling from one site, it would pull in all work relevant to said discussion or activity from all sites into one interface, much like we had envisioned for the class page for the social learning environment.  This would make organizing and responding to the massive stream of data for any course much easier. You could also easily drop in a stream to follow your professor as they tag things for you to read.

Rockmelt has a button that easily shares links to your networks

You click on this button and it adds the link to Facebook, Twitter, etc – along with your comments. This would be very useful to help students share websites they come across as they are browsing.  All you need to add is a feature that pulls every tag from each course that a student is enrolled in and then lets them quickly add them to what they share on whatever site they choose.  This way learning could seamlessly integrate with life when you are browsing.

Rockmelt is based on Google Chrome, which allows for plug-ins

This means all kinds of things could be added to your browser to help you with your course.  In fact, many Chrome users already do this – but it is still all separated from your online courses.  A browser classroom would solve all of this.

But it could also allow for even more powerful tools.  I was thinking of all of the collaborative desktop sharing tools that exist out there and what would happen to them when desktops give way to cloud computing (if that ever happens.?  What about a plug-in that allows a user to share a tab with anyone they want to – so people can follow their browsing?  Then create a plug-in that runs Skype or whatever through your browser and you have the cloud-based version of desktop sharing – browser tab sharing.  Of course, this might already exist – I confess I don’t have time to follow this area as much as I would like.

There are probably many more ideas that could go here, but the idea would be to minimize the LMS to be in the background so students can concentrate on the place where they are learning: the web.

Is Moodle Going Down the Path of Open Social Learning?

Embedded below is an interesting interview with Martin Dougiamas, founder of Moodle.  The interview was originally posted on Michael Feldstein’s e-Literate site (who also conducted the interview and asked some great questions).  The entire thing in interesting, but there are two key points that interest people that are interested in the New Vision for the LMS stuff we have been blogging about here:

  • Moodle 2.0 will have a feature that lets you pull in existing blog entries from your own blog that are tagged with a specific tag.  Dougiamas mentions this around the 31:45, and this captures one of the features that we think will be key in the future of online learning.
  • Dougiamas also talks about the future of Learning Management Systems and Moodle starting at the 32 minute mark.  He mentions that there will most likely be a new version of Moodle (“Moodle X” he calls it) that will be a totally new program (not just Moodle 3.0) built from the ground up, centered around the student.  A lot of this sounds exactly like what we have been talking about here, so I am really glad to see a major player in the online learning market talking like this.  The only question I have: how do I get in on the conversation he is having with people about this?

Here is the video itself:

Interview with Martin Dougiamas from Michael Feldstein on Vimeo.

Mobile Pedagogy And Mobile Devices

As much as I see written about mobile devices in education, I rarely see anything that includes what I am calling mobile pedagogy (for lack of better words).  There are little snippets here and there – but nothing that really seems to leverage the possibilities of a mobile device.

To me, it would seem that since the learner would be mobile, you would want to have them get out and interact with their surroundings, and not just send existing content to a mobile device.  Watching a lecture video on an iPhone might be a great way to save time for busy commuters – but you can also pretty much accomplish the same educational goal on a 50 year old television.  Where are the courses designed specifically for mobile learners – ie, learners that are mobile – and not just re-formatted for mobile devices.

So often it seems that when people talk about mobile learning, they are talking about mobile devices and not mobile learners.

Here are just a few ideas that could be possible:

  • Instructor-guided tours of physical locations – a walk through the city to talk about civil engineering, or a tour of a local zoo that explores the political climate of the countries that certain animals are from. Why not make lectures more interactive? A political science lesson at a zoo? Why, you ask?  Well, just because it makes learning interesting and different – mixing subjects just for the heck of it. I loved doing that when I was a teacher.
  • Have learners collect “artifacts” through out the day that relate to the week’s topics – pictures, voice memos, videos, notes, etc.  Students then sit down at some point and assemble an analysis of these artifacts into an interactive report.
  • Augmented reality tests – students go to a Biology lab or Art museum whatever, and as they walk around questions pop-up that require them to examine what is in front of them and then answer.  You know – real world application and not just disconnected multiple choice questions. And there would be no set order or numbers of questions – you keep going until you have proven that you understand the topic and can aply it.
  • Then there is the whole range of projects where students would create projects, tours, etc for other mobile learners – those possibilities are endless.

Wouldn’t it be great if your LMS had an app that helped your students do this, instead of half-baked blog and wiki tools?  Just make sure your school has a good supply of lower cost smart-phones to loan out to students that can’t afford them, a good set of back-up plans for accessibility purposes, and a good contingency plan and you are ready to roll.

Oh, if only I had the money to do all of this on my own.

(I would probably go bankrupt in no time…)

Is Google Getting In To the LMS Business?

The new Google CloudCourse project hasn’t gotten that much chatter online.  At first glance around the project page, you can easily see why.  There are only a handful of functions that basically just do what Google employees have found helpful around the office (because apparently the whole thing started as an internal project).  This basically spells “yawn” for most educators. CloudCourse does have a few things going for it:

  • Open-source: we may see more interesting functions arising… if the right people get involved.
  • Part of the Google family: we might see connections to Google Docs, Wave, etc.
  • It already connects to Google Calendars.

Right now, it really is a management system and not much more.  Add in a grade book and the ability to embed or import content from other sites and you pretty much have all you need for an Open Learning Environment.  Connect it with a Google Reader-like system for aggregating tags and RSS feeds, and you have the New Vision ideas we have been kicking around here at EGJ.  Sounds like just a few easy steps, but that will only happen if we have educators jump into the development of the project to wrestle it away from the business training mindsets that seem to rule it now.

Which could also pretty much describe other large LMS programs that shall remain nameless….

Reflections on Starting a Revolution

Okay, maybe the title is a bit over-dramatic.  I just couldn’t come up with anything else snappier. Harriet and I have been presenting our Social Learning Environment Manifesto at a few conferences lately… and in many ways it does feel like we are trying to start a revolution.  The reality is that we are just starting a few new skirmishes in the over all movement to change education, but sometimes we feel a bit alone since there is not really a network or gathering that we can go to and just feel at home. You know, a conference or gathering of like minds, of people that get this stuff totally.  There are places like TxDLA where we can find many comrades-in-arms among everyone else, but then there are places like EduCause where we felt waaaaaay out-numbered by the muggles.

(side-note: I am always thankful and surprised to find some readers of this blog out there. Any time you ever see me out there at a conference, feel free to grab a chair at the table I am eating at and let’s swap ideas.)

I guess we just have to be ready for hecklers and critics everywhere we go. In many ways, I like to embrace the comments of those that get visibly upset and red-faced when we question their sacred cows. Their questions and concerns help us to sharpen our argument significantly.  So this blog post is really a tribute to those critics and hecklers.

But first, a quick look at a good piece of constructive criticism:

For an improvement, I would have liked to see more examples of what people are doing. I like concrete items, I know the topic was theoretical which limited what could be presented; however I think I would have liked to see the presenters present more examples or talk rather than fielding as many questions as they did.

This comment actually came from someone that really liked the session, but left this as a suggestion for improvement.  We intentionally made our presentation more discussion oriented… more open-ended. We think that people actually need to start demanding that conference presenters stop giving so many concrete ideas and examples. They need to stop thinking for us. They need to give us the concepts and let us come up with the concrete ideas.

An interesting question arose from the discussion that I think applies here.  The question was basically that students don’t usually like to think for themselves – they want to be spoon fed – so if we go open and active with learning, won’t they just complain? The answer to that is a bit complex, but the short answer is yes, they will complain that content is not being spoon fed to them in a passive format.  Then the attendees started laughing about how that is also how we want stuff as educators – we go to conferences to be spoon-fed and not think ourselves.  The comment above is an example of that – we left it open ended and let people interact more, and even among the people that loved what we said their were still people that still wanted us to be more passive. I still want at times myself, so I am not criticizing this person’s comments as much as pointing out how much we need to change as educators.  Bur from here on out, the comments I want to feature get pretty bad :)

They were just presenting a conceptual piece, seemingly hoping for someone to fund them. It seems as though they assume ALL students have youtube, blogs, twitter, etc accounts.

Fund us? Do they know anything about these conferences? Going to TxDLA or Educause hoping to get funding is like Barry Manilow going to Metallica hoping they will buy some songs for their next album.  That is just crazy talk.  The second sentence shows how little people pay attention when they have written you off.  Our point was that students can used whatever tools they already are using online, no matter what it is, in their learning – rather than learn new tools just to do “assignments”.

Be prepared to provide strong evidence you are correct. If you can’t do that, you should keep your opinions to yourself.

Really? This last one is just sad, because it really defeats the whole purpose of education.  We can’t share new ideas? We can’t dream and think outside of the box and get other people to dream along with us?  You know, someone has to actually try this stuff before there is any evidence. That is kind of how you get evidence. Ideas only get better once you share them and collaborate around them.  But, once again, we want to be spoon fed.  Don’t give me concepts – give me ideas for me to mindlessly clone!

Despite the last two sad comments, the majority were good constructive ideas like the first one I quoted above or just down right awesome encouragement.  I will conclude with one of the better ones that was left for us:

What Matt and Harriet are proposing is exciting, innovative, and Bb, D2L, Google, Microsoft should all stop and listen.

Social Learning Environment Manifesto

I began to blog about our “New Vision for Learning Management Systems” over a year ago. Since then, we have come across many new ideas, causing the New Vision to morph, change, and grow.  Hopefully it will continue to change and grow. But I thought it would be a good idea to take a step back and summarize where the idea stands now.

The bigger idea is still to turn the LMS inside out. In order to do that, a new name was needed.  While our current idea is not set in stone, the new term we are currently calling this new vision is a Social Learning Environment (SLE).  The term “social” is becoming an over-used buzz term, so it may need to change at some point.  There are some other good ideas for terms out there. I have been following the concept of the Open Learning Environment (OLE) as described by Jon Mott of Brigham Young University.  The OLE is very similar to what we are calling the SLE, but with a few key differences as described later.

Our goal with the SLE is two fold: to aggregate student Personal Learning Networks (PLN) and make the teacher’s administrative task easier in the process. In the back of our minds is also FERPA, reporting, and accessibility.  There really is not one good place to start, so I will begin with the students.

Overall, the SLE is connected to university enrollment databases. Students log in to the SLE with the same password that they use for other services such as university email. The SLE authenticates each student through this system. This system also indicates what courses the students have enrolled in.  When students first log in to the system (before going to a class page), they will create connections to all of their content creation services (blogs, Twitter, YouTube, etc). This will connect their profile in the SLE with all of the accounts they use. Nothing else really happens at this point.

Teachers will create a class in the SLE. This class will be assigned a unique tag, such as “eng1301sp10.”  This tag will be connected with the class on the SLE server.  Students will use this tag to label all work they do for this class in their various connected services.  Since each class would have a unique tag, students could use the same services for all classes while keeping work for different classes separate (but also retaining ownership of their work).

The SLE will then troll through all of the RSS feeds for each connected service the student has added, looking for unique course tags. When the tag is found, that content is sent to the appropriate course.  This content can then be accessed as a continuous stream by the student in either a web-based interface or on a mobile device.  RSS feeds of this aggregated content can also be created. This could look something like this:

(click on image ti enlarge)

This may lead to a confusing jumble of content for several different assignments.  The solution for this is to create a second tag for each assignment, such as “week1” for discussions or “assignment1” for the first class assignment. This will allow students to sort the data stream, as well as help instructors connect content with a secure grade book.

This grade book would use tags to populate the grade book easily for instructors.  Teachers would see a split screen when they begin to grade. On one side of the screen, the SLE would pull up the content from the student’s PLN that matches the class tag and the assignment tag.  The SLE can also be set to look for either the first occurrence of all tags, the last occurrence of all tags, or an aggregation of all tags. This would allow instructors to allow for collections of different media (such as photo collages), journaling over time, or rough drafts with feedbacks.  The SLE could also be set to scrape out the first instance of a set of tags if a tool (such as WordPress) allows students to go back and edit content.  The other side of the screen would show a rubric (created by the instructor) that allows instructors to give feedback either based on grades, letters, or just pure instructor feedback. This feedback would only be visible to students. A grade book could potential look like this:

(click on image ti enlarge)

Discussions could also be taken to the student PLNs instead of being hidden inside of the SLE. When instructors create a discussion, they would also assign it a tag. The SLE would aggregate all student responses together from around the web.  This would theoretically allow students to use any media and many different sites to contribute to a discussion. The same interfaces mentioned above (web, mobile, RSS) would be used to organize these discussions into manageable streams, which students can read on the device or service of their choice. To reply to a post, a reply button would be built in to the SLE interface that allows students to respond to discussion posts in the service that they like (no matter where the post originated at). This response would be posted on the service that the post originated on as well as somewhere in the responder’s PLN.  This response would also be tagged in the SLE as a response so that it would show up in the discussion stream as a nested response.

Grading discussions would also need to be facilitated through an easy-to-use interface. When setting up the discussion, instructors would designate how much each discussion post would be worth, how many responses are required by each student, how much responses are worth, and what each point value means (ie – what would earn higher or lower points).  When the instructor logs in to the SLE interface, they would see a drop-down next to each discussion post.  They would be able to grade each post as they read it, and the SLE would add all of these grades up automatically in the grade book. For example, if an instructor said that each discussion response will be worth 5 points, they would see a drop down next to each post that allows them to score each post on a scale of 0 – 5 as they are reading. If they are only grading one post per student, then once they grade a post for a student, the drop-downs would disappear from all other student posts on that subject.

Instructor course content would also be handled much in the same way as student assignments.  Instructors would add their connection sites to their profile. As they blog, create videos, or take pictures, they would simply need to tag the appropriate content each week with the course tag, and it would get sent to the SLE as content. This would be especially powerful if coupled with a browser plug-in that allows teachers to tag sites as they read them (in the same way that social bookmarking sites like Delicious operate).  This would allow students to “follow” teachers as they research, read articles, and visit websites that relate to the course content. These social bookmarks would also make excellent discussion question starters for weekly discussion topics instead of stale, canned questions that stay the same every semester.

In many ways, this would also create a Personal Teaching Environment. We don’t necessarily see the SLE as one product that looks the same for everyone. We could potentially see it as a concept that has many different flavors and companies.  The idea could even be that the only part of the SLE that is installed on a school’s servers is the database (that stores grades and information) and an authentication module with interface. Much in the same way that services like OpenID and FaceBook Connect allow users of those services to log in to other sites, the SLE server would allow students to securely log in to a course SLE no matter where it resides.  Or, to avoid confusion, the SLE server could serve as a login hub that lets students have one login location that links out to the SLEs containing the courses they are enrolled in.  Teachers would choose to use whatever SLE they want, which could include anything from free online services to paid areas with different companies to even an open-source version that they install on their own web site.  Schools would give a unique security code to each instructor for each class. Teachers would enter this code into their SLE instance, and then authenticate their class with the SLE server installed on at the school. The two systems would then talk with each other to securely pass student authentication back and forth. This kind of system would have several distinct advantages. Instructors could take classes with them where ever they go. Schools could invite instructors from other schools to be guest teachers as they see fit (or they could even share instructors over alternating semesters). Instructors would find it easier to invite guests in to their classes. Also, institutions could save time and money if they only have to maintain a simple server area instead of a complex LMS solution. Not to mention they could focus resources on instructional designers that could help teachers design quality classes rather than on the massive tech support teams that keep LMS servers running.  The good news for students is that no matter where the class is hosted or who teaches (tenure to adjunct to guest), they would still use the same password and user name to sign in.

All of this PLN aggregation will be possible by the using RSS feeds and tags.  Most Cloud-based web services have both RSS feeds and tags.  Those that don’t have official separate tags (such as Twitter) have found ways to still integrate them in to the service. For those services that lack both, the SLE will users to submit links or embed codes to the SLE and tag them as needed for specific class assignments.

One major topic that is gaining attention in educational circles recently is the concept of ePortfolios. Unfortunately, many ePortfolio solutions still seem to be more about showing off the company that created them more than the students using them.  The field of ePortfolios is in need of some radical change, because the idea behind them is sound (even if many of the current solutions aren’t perfect). I don’t want to spoil anyone’s thunder here, but I have spoken to people that have great ideas in this area and I think there will be some great new ideas coming to ePortfolios in the future.  All of that being said, the SLE would easily integrate with an innovative ePortfolio system. Any object that students want to add to a portfolio can easily have a third tag of “portfolio” added to them. The SLE would see this and send that object to the portfolio. In fact, new tags to categorize the portfolio entries could also be added, such as “portfolio-education” or “portfolio-experience”. The ePortfolio software would then be used to present the objects added as desired.

Learning goals and outcomes are often relegated to an after-thought in many online courses. The SLE would be designed to bring these up front. Teachers would be required to enter course goals or objectives when they start a class, as well as connect relevant local and national learning standards to their course. These would be displayed to the students. As teachers create activities for students to complete, they will also be connecting these activities to course objectives.  This would also all be stored on a school’s SLE server for accountability purposes.

A word about the underlying architecture of the SLE. Since web tools change all the time, with new ones also being created quite frequently, the basic design of a SLE would need to be modular. As new tools are created, new modules can be quickly built that are designed to troll through the RSS feeds from these services and read the tags that are there. As existing services change, the modules for these services can also be updated quickly. This architecture would allow for new and updated tools to quickly be integrated in to the SLE as the web evolves.

The following diagram gives a basic overview of how this system would work.

(click on image ti enlarge)

Where Would Content Come From in an LMS-Free Future?

Despite my last rant, I know that most people in education know that we still need instructors of some sort.  We all know that the “sage on the stage” concept has never proven to be effective. Technology is finally giving us a way to do something more effective… if not a swift kick in the pants. The big question is: how can an instructor avoid being a long-winded talking head by taking advantage of experts on the social web, but also contribute something to their student’s educational endeavors?

Harriet and I were meeting with our uber-boss Pete Smith the other day (who will probably read this and “comment” on it by walking past my office and telling me his comment :) to discuss our “New Vision for the LMS” concept. When you get Pete talking about cutting edge stuff, he will truly make your head spin. He was envisioning the role of an educator taking on more of mentoring slant… but wondering how that can work with online asynchronous courses.  His idea was to use something like Google Reader to guide students through weekly readings by sharing what you think students in a particular class should be reading (out of all of the vast amounts of data out there).

An interesting idea. Maybe there are people out there doing this already? The basic idea is that students would follow a instructors on a service  – something that operates like Digg or Google Reader, where you share certain things you read and then tag them with a class tag (#engl101).  That would then be the students “content” for the week. Their projects and blog posts would have to reflect that they read this week’s shared content.

The interesting thing about this idea is that it allows the instructor to take advantage of many sites, many experts, and many voices… while still contributing overall to class learning.  In fact, instructors could still keep their own blog and add content to the stream of shared content. Or add notes to what they are sharing (at least in Google Reader).

I don’t think there is a tool out there that would be as robust as it would need to be for educational purposes – without creating multiple accounts. Students will just need to see the content for their class – so if a teacher has multiple classes, most sharing tools would require some kind of separate account to handle all classes without confusion.  It would be nice to have a function that works like Digg or Delicious with browser plug-ins. But once you “digg” something, you have the ability to tag it with a class tag and that sends it to every student in that class. If you see something else for another class, then you tag it with that class and then only those students see it.

Other features that would be nice would be the ability to add notes to your “diggs” as well as the ability to turn a specific digg in to a class discussion.  One of those discussions I blogged about last week that is not contained in the LMS box.

Just one of many new ideas we are working in to the NEW “New Vision for the LMS” concept….