Monday, October 11, 2004

e-learning Amateurs & Professionals: a community of practice?

In education we always seem to be looking for the “killer” application or media.
Ron Oliver et. al. from Australia’s Edith Cowan University suggest that “..The speed with which education embraces new technologies is matched only by the speeds with which old technologies are dropped.”
Stephen Downs in his recent presentations in Australia has said that he believes that the concept of a killer application in education from an enterprise solution perspective is “broken technology”.
So are we as educators ‘barking up the wrong tree’?

My experience with enterprise systems tends to support Stephen Downes contention.
In my organisation we have gone through two implementations of enterprise Learning Management Systems (LMS) with two of the major players in this market.
Both systems were expensive and problematic to implement and maintain.
They both adopt a metaphor for learning that is not much more than content delivery page-turners.
Yes I know that with clever learning designs you can make the learning environment into something more than this, but the majority academic staff use the enterprise LMS is to deliver content with a couple of tools included for good measure.

Our experience with enterprise systems shows a poor level of reliability and our reputation has suffered because of this. It only takes one of our four Web-servers to fail and the LMS is no longer available to students.
Also, some of the synchronous communication tools download java applications to the users computer. This creates issues if ISP bandwidth, browser setup, platform differences and firewall problems. While the LMS is operating correctly, the users are not able to use the designed functionality of the learning environment.

For some years now educators and librarians have been attempting to define, categorise and re-use what they have been calling learning objects. The rationale behind this movement is to somehow re-package and make available existing learning resources for new learning experiences in an attempt to save money and development time.
There have, however, been some major problems with this initiative; in particular with the time taken to record the metadata required, and to de-contextualise or re-contextualise the learning objects. To some extent the later issue has been addressed by adopting Ron Oliver’s approach to ICT learning design, where the emphasis is on the undertaking of meaningful and authentic learning tasks that are supported by learning resources (re-useable learning objects) and supports.
The advantage of this approach lies in the requirement for learners to adapt the learning object to the new context of their learning task/s. In terms of Blooms Taxonomy, the learning is pitched into the top levels of evaluation and synthesis.
But who owns the learning objects? And do you need to pay for their use?

For many years publishers and universities have had a monopoly on intellectual property. Recent legislation in the US and Australia have sought to strengthen and broaden the strangle hold publishers have on all kinds of content by enacting and expanding copyright legislation.
Universities have since medieval times been custodians of knowledge and conferrers of qualifications. They have sought to certify students to particular levels of proficiency and educate the world intelligentsia.
This occurred in times where knowledge was finite and manageable, but now with the information age well and truly upon us, the quanta knowledge is growing at an unprecedented rate and its distribution is growing in a similar fashion.
We now have the situation where it is impossible to know all that there is to know about a specific discipline and many students will have more knowledge than their educators in some areas.
At the same time some, like Lave and Wenger are suggesting that true knowledge resides in “communities of practice” where learning and knowledge are developed through social discourse of like minded people.
This assertion offers a significant challenge to both publishers and universities as it seeks to undermine status quo in education.

OK, so if we suggest that universities and publishers are losing their monopoly on knowledge, who will create and distribute it?
Could we suggest that amateurs and their colleagues might give freely of their own time to generate and distribute information and ideas?
This suggestion seems unlikely, but it is happening already. Many communities of practice make information available publicly and do not ask for money.
Wikipedia now has in excess of a million articles publicly available and free of charge. The information in this online encyclopedia is written and maintained by anyone who wishes to contribute—amateurs if you like.
But is it reliable? It would appear that it is with a number of studies conducted that suggest reliablility equivalence with other publisher owned encyclopedias.
Another confounding issue with Wikipedia is that no person can claim authorship of the information, but people continue to donate and maintain the information without charge and for the common good.

So what does this mean for e-learning? If publishers and educational institutions are losing their monopoly, what will e-learning look like and how will we be able to determine the effectiveness of the options?
Who will make money from education?
Will there be more of a portfolio requirement when applying for employment?
These are tough questions with few obvious answers.

More soon,

Scot.

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