Far more disjointed than usual. It’s yet another cry for help…

Oh my, it’s been a while since I blogged, hasn’t it? There’s a substantial backlog of post-worthy items that have accumulated over the past week or so… but that is not why I’m finally hauling off on the keyboard right now.

No, what’s foremost in my so-called mind is a full-day workshop on “learning objects” I will be delivering in Arizona at the end of this week (and repeating here in Vancouver immediately upon my return, with a couple more gigs shortly thereafter). I’ve given dozens of these talks over the past few years, and it wouldn’t be hard for me to yet again rehash my current routine of song, dance, card-tricks and copious linkage. But even if much of the material is new to the participants, it feels a bit stale to me, and I have learned from experience that I need to be excited about my content to deliver it effectively.

I am also haunted by the sense that yet again the ground is shifting with digital media and learning. I haven’t come across any one development that makes it all cohere, just a series of newsbytes and blog postings that I feel I need to account for… a sampling:

* Robin Good links the emergence of the improved Google News Search, the Creative Commons search (now enhanced by a partnership with Yahoo), and the buggy-yet-damn-exciting Ourmedia project. One might add A9’s Open Search into the mix, which Stephen describes as “deliciously open – and exceptionally useful.” When you see how services like these are allowing users to store and share media, and define and redeploy searches and news services… well, I’m not exactly sure what the end result is. But whatever is happening, the common notion of the “(first generation) learning object repository” seems to be left in the dust.

* Then there’s that whole folksonomy thing… which I’ve raved about before… I’ve been so bogged down in administrivia the past month or so that I have done a poor job of tracking developments in this space. But even if it’s largely old news, Flickr still strikes me as the best-designed content storage and sharing application that I’ve seen.

* Lots of stuff about the emergence of podcasting (which makes production of sound files accessible to the individual user)… but I’ve also been running across notions of RSS enclosures to support the distribution of other digital media types (perhaps in conjunction with all those portal sites that sit tragically under-exploited at most universities).

* Like Gardner, I’m damn impressed with the simple elegance and expository power of Jon Udell’s documentary screencasts, and suspect they may provide a very flexible model for future learning resources. I think what I like about these screencasts is how they tap into the natural dynamism of Web interaction. But my initial investigations suggest the tools are still a bit too expensive, and the process too complex for common adoption.

* Then there’s that wonderful bit of Downsia: “The greatest non-technical issue is the mindset. We have to view information as a flow rather than as a thing. Online learning is a flow. It’s like electricity or water. It’s there, it’s available and it flows. It’s not stuff you collect. I don’t see myself sitting in my home collecting jars of water. I use the water as it comes. If you think the internet as an environment that is moving and shaping all around you, then you will have a better attitude to be able to handle the flood of information that is coming at you” — This is in one sense a more poetic articulation of Rip-Mix-Feed, but in my reading it goes deeper — challenging the whole static-resource fallacy that is embedded in the common-sense learning object vision. As David Wiley, another LO pioneer, recently ranted: “Why would we turn the greatest enabler of social interaction into a simple data download service?”

These are just a few of the issues that I feel I need to account for. I suppose I could just take a portion of the day and lecture on these trends — my complete lack of real knowledge on the subjects has never stopped me before — but to the participants these developments may well seem completely irrelevant. I need to figure out a way to raise these issues within a framework of their own concerns.

I also need to recognise that the culture of reuse in education is hardly something that can be taken for granted. Right now I am working in an advisory capacity with a project that is developing a series of “reusable learning objects” on some themes that could be adopted very widely across multiple disciplines. When we were writing the funding application for this project, I contributed some background text which promised we would “maximize reusability” and edit-ability (sorry for that homely term), making materials available in CSS-structured HTML with a dead-easy roadmap that would allow future users to easily rework the resources for their own purposes. At that stage of the project, all parties agreed that this was A Good Thing. Now that content development is underway, a new hesitancy about allowing others to change the hard-earned text has emerged, and at the last meeting it seemed as if the new working plan was to lock all content into secured PDFs, and to deliver them via a series of links within a CMS. It’s about as non-reusable (not to mention non-usable) a framework as can be imagined.

I don’t relate this story to bash anyone — I can understand the concerns, even if I disagree with them. If a poll were taken of academics on this scenario I don’t doubt that the lock-down model would win hands-down. But I think this episode demonstrates how far educational culture is away from developments on the wider web. I’m trying very hard to think of ways I can engage a conversation on this subject.

So far, all I’ve been able to come up with are a series of questions I might pose to various groups of participants, and then using their responses as a jump-off point for discussion. Some possible questions:

* As a teacher, have you reused (or would you reuse) digital media in your instruction? Why and/or why not?
* As a content creator, have you made (or would you make) your work available for reuse by others? Are there conditions you might require for reuse?
* How much of the material you use in your practice is explicitly produced as “educational content”, and how much from other sources (give examples)?
* In your experience, how gracefully do digital learning materials age? Do you still use materials that were created years ago?
* Has digital media changed the way you create or distribute your own personal artifacts (photos, writing, music)? How?
* Have you developed strategies to deal with information overload?
* Have your students changed the way you approach online media?
* Is there a digital learning resource you wish existed but doesn’t? Is there a way you wish the resources you have seen could change?

Those questions are inelegantly phrased — in part because I am literally feverish as I type them — and I worry they may be loaded to suggest a “right answer”.

If anyone reading this has a) suggestions for developments in media and learning I should be looking at or b) ideas how I might get a meaningful conversation going on these topics I’d love to hear them. I do have some history of begging for help on developing a learning objects event that does not suck, and it worked out great back then. Believe me, any feedback would be appreciated.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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