Higher Education iTunes University Second LIfe

what an online learning system requires

I was reading Michael Feldstein’s brief postmortem on his experiences with the SUNY Learning Network and why SLN ultimately decided to move to Angel. As I understand, in a non-technical way, the LMOS project Feldstein and his colleagues were pursuing, the idea was a modular, standards-based approach to online learning. This strikes me as the right direction ultimately, even if the project failed to get off the ground at SLN for various institutional/political/material reasons.


Well, not to be overly systematic about these matters, but it strikes me that a university curriculum could be mapped across several dimensions in relation to technology in which you could look at each faculty member in terms of

  • rate of adoption of new technologies
  • integration of discipline-specific applications
  • quantitative-qualitative methods of evaluation
  • degree of student interaction
  • degree of online use (i.e. the amount of data and entries for a course)
  • degree of media-intensity (e.g. text-only to video and so on)

I’m sure one could come up with other measures. But for example, one psych professor I know makes extensive use of discipline-specific applications and quantitative methods. However, he’s not making heavy use of media or new techs (outside of discipline-specific stuff). He would and is an important client for our online learning system to serve. And really our system, Web CT/Blackboard, is designed to serve him better than it is to serve me.

As an early adopter I am comfortable with things not always working
smoothly and with taking creative approaches to the logistics of making
things work in a class. But not everyone should have to be like that.
Professional writing is a qualitative discipline with a high degree of
student interaction and online use and a relatively high use of media.
That means that for my colleagues, who are not early adopters, the
learning system needs to be able to offer easy ways to manage a variety
of data, allow for student interaction, and make different media

formats available.

I don’t mean to suggest this is about disciplinary differences
either. Take Second Life for example. The psych prof colleague I
mentioned is wholly uninterested in Second Life and sees no value in it
for what he is doing. A different psych professor might feel
differently, and indeed there are psych professors making use of SL.
Similarly, there are literary studies faculty who would have no
interest in SL while others are leaping in.

iTunes U is another example. We use it, but it just sits there along side Web CT without any interaction.

But how is Web CT/Blackboard or Angel or any other CMS going to
account for something like SL? The new Web CT has a "blogging" function
(sort of). Will the next version have something like a wiki? Will it
allow for sharing video files a la YouTube or iTunes? Will it have
social bookmarking? Will it have social networking? And if it did,
would anyone use it?

It’s bad enough to be burdened with a Web CT-specific e-mail (as if
you’re ever gonna check that!). You just set it to forward to another
existing account, right? It’s the same thing with all these other
"features." Who needs a Web CT blog? Who wants to share videos inside
Web CT when you can share them on YouTube? Why have social bookmarks or
a facebook-esque page in Web CT when you already have
and/or facebook? And who knows what will follow on things like Second

Meanwhile, there will be plenty of profs who are using their CMS to
deliver text-based teaching materials, run quizzes, and function as a
gradebook. I’ve done all these things too.

My point is that no single company or open source community will
ever be able to match the innovation of the broad web marketplace.
Hitching oneself to a single group would be simply foolish. Instead,
what an online learning system requires is the flexibility to
incorporate innovations that develop around the web.

For example, would it be so hard for Web CT to allow you to publish
RSS feeds inside your course? Technically you can do this inasmuch as
anything you can put into an HTML page you can put into a frame in
WebCT, but there’s no mechanism in the application for facilitating

In the end, college courses are so varied that there really isn’t
much that will be commonly shared between them. We all need grade books
and user accounts for students, though there are probably many folks
who don’t keep their grades online either, so maybe it’s just the
latter that we all share.

Everyone needs a place where their students can access the course.
Beyond that, things start to diverge and the only thing that makes
sense to me is to create a system by which new elements can be built in
and customized.

One reply on “what an online learning system requires”

Outstanding post, and I really like your multi-dimensional mapping approach. As a K-12 tech coordinator who is responsible for Blackboard implementation, I often am amused when Blackboard talks about Web 2.0 integration/tools. I’m not sure they even truly know what that means as a company that produces a closed-system CMS, and that’s further reinforced by the lack of Web 2.0 tools within the product itself and the difficulty incorporating existing 2.0 tools. Blackboard for us provides us with a nice tool for most teachers, and we’ve tricked it out with a blog and wiki building block from LearningObjects for those who wish to go further. But as it currently exists, Blackboard is hopelessly behind the curve (not even native RSS integration within a course?), and they could do much to improve their interface, and their business, if they opened integration as you suggest in your last paragraph.
Sincerely, David


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