After pondering it for some time, I have finally taken the plunge and moved most of my blogging activity to my own domain.  This blog may not be completely silent, but the from now on most of my posting will be at

I did this for at least two reasons. First, I wanted a blog that was more technically flexible and gave me more options for hosting media and making changes “under the hood” than does. Second,  The title and subdomain of this blog have caused me to feel constrained.  At the new site, I hope to blog about many more things.  Education and technology will continue to be among them, and I promise to start tagging things so those interested in these topics can find those posts among my other musings on pop culture, obscure languages, etc. 




….or, am I analyzing when I should be probing.

I’ve been reading about the Cynefin framework (watch a video in which Cynefin creator Dave Snowden describes it) recently and pondering what it might mean for my work as an e-learning administrator.
For the last several years my institution has participated in a grant-funded program. One of the program’s key precepts is that institutions must be data driven.  We have dutifully collected data, designed interventions, piloted them and seen improvements in our target indicators. Thinking about Cynefin causes me to consider two possibilities:

1)  We are working in a complicated environment.  In designing the intervention, our experts did well in identifying the cause-effect relationship.  This provides a good model for future program design.

2) The system we work in is complex.  We had a probe that worked well, and we are now trying to amplify it.  However, since the system is complex, our next probe may end up needing to be dampened.

This matters because if we have a complex system and treat it as complicated, if a probe doesn’t go well, we think our analysis is wrong or we followed the advice of the wrong experts.  This makes us less likely to continue to experiment.

Andrew Cerniglia also  writes about Cynefin in the classroom.

Of course picking the right quadrant is the key decision, and it seems quite possible that one would get it wrong.  My tendency is to think that if one were to err in this, it would be better to misidentify something as complex which was merely complicated that to go the other way round.

This morning, the iPad vs laptop debate appeared again on my Twitter stream. The case in point was Anastasis Academy, a 1:1 iPad school in Colorado. Alec Couros and Jon Becker questioned whether a laptop wouldn’t be a more broadly capable device. Several interesting comments ensued.

Kelly Tenkely mentioned “…all an I-pad will let you do that laptop won’t (for same price)” and then clarified that she was thinking about software when she wrote “…not as many free software options on laptops.” That one made me do a double take, and I’m sure somewhere Richard Stallman’s ears are burning. Jon Becker then mentioned Linux laptop projects. Before Kelly mentioned software, I was guessing that she was making the argument, which I’ve seen before, that iPads are more useful than laptops because their UI makes it easier to actually get work done since you don’t have to spend as much time learning how to do things.

Michelle Baldwin made the quite valid point that different tools meet different needs. I think, however, that the 1:1 model implies that one tool will be a focal point of technology use. I would argue that if you are going to put a single tool at the “center of the show”, that tool should be as flexible and open a tool as you can find.

I hope Anastasis Academy’s iPad approach works for them. I also hope they’ll consider adding a Raspberry Pi, or something like it, to the supply list for older students once the device ships later this year. I’d love to see what the creative students they are cultivating could do if given a device they could program.

By sleeping before I blogged, I’ve gotten way behind on the whole badges thing.  Here are some belated first thoughts.

The Good

  • Badges recognize that meaningful learning can happen in units smaller than a 750 minute credit hour.
  • The backpack concept makes it easier for learners to aggregate credentials (I am under no illusion that badges are not credentials written small).
  • The replacement of A-B-C-D-F with badge or no badge (now everything is pass-fail, in essence) may reduce relentless sorting pressure.

The Meh

  • Badges still rely on external validation.  Validation already exists outside of the formal higher ed system.  Ask anyone who’s ever taken an MCSE or DELF exam. Therefore badges still signal.  Some badges will be perceived as more valuable ( a .NET badge validated by Microsoft) than others (a .NET badge validated by your brother-in-law, unless he happens to be Steve Ballmer).
  • Badges are touted as a way for learners to have more control over their learning. Can that really happen given that , with external validation, controlling your learning is about  choosing which badges from which validators you will pursue?
  • Almost anything a badge documents could be documented by an e-portfolio.  Badges become another shortcut HR offices and Admissions committees can use to avoid actually examining a person’s work in making screening decisions.

The Ugly

  • How will one ensure that the badges a person claims truly belong to them?  Since badges are digital, anyone planning to validate them is going to have to make significant investments in security and redundancy.  If your badge is hacked or the validator is no longer able to document it’s validity, the badge is worthless.
  • Will a badge system require you to have a single verifiable identity to which your badges are attached? (Thanks to Bud Hunt for spurring this thought). This is a dream for Facebook and Google, and a nightmare for the EFF.
  • The current system of degrees ensures that it’s not just about employable skills.  Even students doing a career-focused AAS are required to take classes in English, math, history, and arts/literature.  To the extent that badges succeed , we may well end up in a world where employers will hire based solely on skill-related badges, removing much of the incentive  that remains for students to learn history, arts, scientific thinking (outside of those in science careers) and other things which contribute to their becoming critical thinkers, conscientious citizens, and well rounded human beings.

Yesterday, Mallory wrote, “I want to find the largest sponge filled with French Knowledge and literally just soak in it….” This makes sense. After all, we know that this is how everyone learns their first language, and language immersion is a commonly used model, especially for younger children. Much of the preference for using language immersion with young children stems from the long held belief in what Noam Chomsky called a “language acquisition device” , an innate ability of children to learn language (read or listen to Chomsky on language acquisition) . More recent research has called this belief into question. However,  many people, especially immigrants, do in fact learn language that way, by “plunging in” and listening until things start make sense. So, why isn’t all of this in French?
The biggest reason is content.  For an immersion approach to work best, you should surround yourself with the language you’re trying to learn.  Doing so in French in Arkansas is difficult. Second, even when that sort of immersion is possible, learners often report spending a significant amount of time frustrated until they have a “lightbulb moment” and everything just starts to make sense.  Getting to that moment takes listening — lots of listening. Thanks to the Internet, that’s easier than ever before.  Later this week, I’ll post some links to listening resources, but, since this class is on a set schedule, we’ll be more structured.
Several students have mentioned having previously studied other languages.  By learning about language, it becomes easier to learn language.  You can start asking , “How does _______  do  comparisons/future tense/etc.” This metalinguistic awareness requires us to talk about genders and tenses and the like.  So in addition to being sponges, soaking up as much language as one can, we also need be like vacuum cleaners, seeking out language in a systematic way.

After the wild and crazy ride that was ds106, I decided to walk the talk and encourage my students to reflect about their learning somewhere other than Blackboard.  After all, the writing belongs to them, and I can’t see a good reason that they should lose access to it at the end of the semester.  Since this is new to many of my students, I tweeted, asking how to succinctly explain the idea.  Gardner Campbell from Virgina Tech, who coined the term “personal cyberinfrastructure” , replied, and I was encouraged to just put all the theory and thinking out there.  That’s why my students found, embedded in a Blackboard announcement, Campbell’s presentation from OpenEd 2009.  At some level, this was like putting a Pepsi bumper sticker on a Coca-Cola delivery truck, but it seemed the most straightforward way to explain what I was up to.

Last week, Tim Owens from the University of Mary Washington created an adhoc Google+ Hangout (which was archived for posterity). Of course, discussion turned to Google+, which is at the moment the most meta social network in the world.  As the discussion turned to circles, it occurred to me that , if you direct your postings carefully to a specific audience, you may miss some synergies.

This isn’t to say that there’s no need for something like circles. I can think of at least a couple of valid use cases for them. I put very little about my children onto social networks.  When they’re older, they should decide how public they want their online lives to be, and I don’t want to burden them with a massive online footprint of childhood photos.  Circles let me share this selectively with relatives and other people who actually know my children.

Another sensible use for circles is managing languages.  I speak/write several languages with varying degrees of competence and fluency.  By segregating speakers of different languages into circles, things are seen only by people who are likely to be able to read them.

However, with these couple of exceptions, I think Google is missing the boat with outbound filtering. I may not know that someone in my Educational Technology circle is also interested in Medieval and Renaissance music, and thanks to the circle model, never the twain shall meet. The crux of it is that people should decide for themselves what’s interesting rather than trying to predict the audience for a specific artifact.  Rather than wonder if I’m in Jon Becker’s Dead Cat circle, I should filter Jon’s streams that I follow to exclude (sorry, Jon) dead animal references using hashtags, keywords, etc.  TweetDeck has a decent global filter, but why not something more granular, so I can avoid Jon’s dead cats while still seeing posts from the horse stable where my kids will attend camp this summer?  Better filtering also can help address social platform overload.  As soon as Google+ launched, the technopundits began to ponder which platforms (facebook, Twitter,etc.) would lose the attention that Google+ gained. If you can filter your streams so as to raise the signal to noise ratio in each channel, this becomes less of an issue.

The higher ed bubble (or perhaps “bubble”) is back with a vengeance.  Mike Caulfield critiqued the notion of a bubble last week.   CNN sounded the alarm  on Monday (I guess they don’t read Caulfield) . Stephen Downes responded to the CNN story, as did Steven Krause and Caulfield. Downes responded to Caulfield, and Caulfied replied.

Caulfield makes some interesting points about the effect on co-curricular emphasis, but there’s an effect that I think all the posters have missed.  The difference between the “sticker price” and the real price affects who goes to college, not just how much they pay.   The elegant term for this gap is “tuition discounting”.  The Lumina foundation examined the practice in detail .  They noted that discounting caused the amount of grant aid given to students from the wealthiest families to grow six times faster than the amount of aid given to students from the lowest income group.  Matthew Quirk wrote in “The Best Class Money Can Buy”  of how tuition discounting  and enrollment management “…changed financial aid—from a tool to help low-income students into a strategic weapon to entice wealthy and high-scoring students.”

If Quirk is right, are we seeing a shift in our collective understanding of what college is for?  Louis Menand recently considered this question in the New Yorker. (Go read Menand’s piece now. My post can wait).  Particularly, is enrollment management a shift back towards what Menand called Theory One (college as intellectual sorting mechanism) and Theory Three (college as vocational training) and away from what he termed Theory Two? (college as preparation mechanism of an informed and thoughtful citizenry)

Given the scale and emphasis of tuition discounting, what bubble there is isn’t round.  The tuition coat gap is growing fastest for those least able to pay.  How we as a nation intend to greatly increase the number of college graduates while making our investments in higher education in such a way that they benefit most those already at the top of the socioeconomic ladder is a question I haven’t been able to figure out the answer to.  I’m concerned that if I figure the answer out, I won’t like it.

In doing some additional research on digital storytelling, I had to go all the way back and ask , “What is it?” DS106 has had a strong “Just do it” ethos from before the beginning. However, I’ve been a bit stuck as I tried to explain to non “initiates” just what it was all about.

As I poked around Wikipedia, I found the Center for Digital Storytelling, from which the term seems to have sprung. In the beginning, digital storytelling seems to have had a narrower definition than it does today. Essentially it was

Recorded narration + musical background + slideshow with Ken Burns effect.

The Wikipedia article also pointed to a digital storytelling site put together by BBC Wales, which stuck to the early definition of the form. Many of the stories had transcripts of the narration, and this led to a discovery.

Rather than wait for videos to load, I tended to read the transcript and then decide if the story was interesting enough to bother watching the full version. After sitting through several videos, I realized that the digital part of the storytelling often didn’t add that much to the experience. You saw some nice pictures and heard the author’s voice, but they were just reading their story, not telling it.

For illustration, compare Seamus Heaney reading the opening of his Beowulf translation with Benjamin Bagby telling the story in the original West Saxon. I’ve read the Heaney translation aloud, and it is, IMHO an excellent rendering of Beowulf into modern English. One can read it aloud and feel like you’re telling a story rather than reading a translation, which is no mean feat. Nevertheless, Bagby claims your attention in a way that Heaney just doesn’t.  So what does this comparison of Beowulf readings have to do with digital storytelling?

When we transcend text, we are making stronger claims on our audience’s attention.  If we’re going to tell stories digitally, we need to back up those claims with something that holds that attention. Just as much as how to use the tools, it’s important for us to help would be digital storytellers that they are, well, storytelling , with all the performance aspects that that entails.

This week I’ve started participating in a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) on mobile learning.   The opening week’s topic asked how I use mobile learning.  I have to admit that mobile learning is a fairly new thing for me, as it’s only in the last 18 months that I’ve had an appropriate device.  Perhaps I should try to define “appropriate device”.  My first cell phone was a Motorola C139.  I think it might have had a web browser, but the screen was so small and the connection so slow that I never used it.  It was only when I got a smartphone that I started developing an interest in m-learning.

At least I think it’s an interest in m-learning.  I worry that I may fall into the trap that this post tells you to avoid. My smartphone is so smart that it is really a pocket computer running a touchscreen optimized OS that happens to have a cell phone radio in it. That combined with the fact that I work in elearning at a traditional higher ed institution, means that I see mlearning through a traditional lens of course objectives and credit hours, even though I don’t learn with my mobile device that way.  Having a smartphone has moved the gigantic information repositiory of the global Internet from my desktop to my pocket (at least until the battery dies).  The just in timeness of it all is amazing, but I question whether it would work for learning that isn’t snippet sized, and I do believe that much of the most important learning we do happens in bigger-than-snippet sized portions.

The other way in which having a smartphone has changed how I learn is by making my Personal Learning Network more accessible.  I tend to use twitter rather than facebook for keeping up with my informal professional peer network. Surprisingly (or maybe not), the learning that happens here is serendipitous.  Rather than posting a question and waiting for a response, I’ll see something of interest posted by someone I follow and use that as a jumping off point.


Header image credit: Flickr user BotheredByBees CC-BY
June 2023

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