Dogged optimist?

Being an optimist sometimes seems to require a degree of dogged determination. It can be necessary to hang on, sometimes for years, in the hope that things will be right in the end. Those of a more pessimistic persuasion would probably describe it as delusion rather than hope but that’s the core of the difference between the half-full and half-empty views of the world.

USQ has been offering fully online courses for almost 20 years. Unlike the early online offerings in some places that required attendance at face-to-face class meetings at beginning and end, and sometimes in between, USQ dived in at the deep end. Online courses had no required face-to-face meetings, no printed or optical media materials through the post, and mostly no required synchronous connections. An online or WEB course was just that. It all happened on the web.
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23 tweets?

USQ 23 Things is into its second week and the topic is Twitter. The post for this week provides a basic description of Twitter, suggests ways that it might be used for academic work, and explains how to get started. Our task is to join Twitter (done some years and 6000+ tweets ago), follow some new people from the 23 Things group (done), send a tweet with the #usq23things hashtag (done), find an interesting article and tweet a link to it (done), comment on the USQ 23 Things blog post with my handle (done), and reflect in my blog about the activities (doing that here).

I confess I was a Twitter sceptic when I first signed up to use it during the SITE conference in 2009. There was limited Twitter activity at the conference that year and it was a while before I discovered how useful Twitter could be for turning up resources for teaching and research. I’m now a regular user and Twitter is a major source of material to feed my professional and general news interests.

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Digital paradoxes around openness

I just got back from from listening to Penny Carnaby from Lincoln University in New Zealand talking about Embracing the Digital Paradox! Exploring the impact of the Canterbury Earthquakes (a natural disaster) on scholarship, learning and teaching. That was mostly about the aftermath of the Canterbury/Christchurch earthquakes, the roles played by digital media in providing support for people immediately and more long term, and the role of the National Library of New Zealand and other agencies collaborating to ensure that documentary records were preserved. One major project that arose is CEISMIC which is a digital archive of the events. 

Discussion in response to her presentation ranged across a variety of topics but eventually highlighted what I thought were some interesting paradoxes.

Penny talked about the challenges in moving academic publication toward openness which runs against the tradition of tightly control refereed journals that are held in university libraries and are not widely available to the public. She also mentioned the roles of elite gatekeepers in controlling access to those publication venues and effectively determining what is of most value. It struck me that those positions were paradoxical.

The pecking order of academic journals is typically determined by measures like the Impact Factor based on citations which imply wider readership if they are higher. On that basis I’d expect open publications to be more widely read and cited and therefore potentially rated as more valuable than closed.

When it comes to elites determining what is valued there is something of a mystery involved in academics, who are often iconoclastic and known for contrariness, accepting such verdicts rather than determining the value of something for themselves. True there may be something of the club involved but it’s strange nonetheless.

Another member of the audience asked a question about the reluctance of students to engage in online discussions in courses despite their propensity for using social media in daily life. That seems paradoxical but the answer may lie in another paradox that we tell students that online discussion is desirable but we assess them on individual, rather than cooperative, work thus according no particular value to engaging in discussions. In fact, we discourage cooperation when it matters most, around assessment, and tend to punish collusion as serious misconduct.

If we really are moving to a more open academic world we may have some work to do lining up various aspects of our work for consistency. Various inconsistencies may become more apparent as we open up. That might not be a bad thing.

ascilite 2010

December 5 – 8, with support from the Faculty, I attended ascilite 2010 in Sydney.

ascilite is the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education. I have been a member since before I attended my first ASCILITE conference at Wollongong in 1998 although I have managed to attend only the 1999, 2000, and 2005 conferences since then. Somewhere along the way ASCILITE has evidently adopted the full e e cummings style and become ascilite but that has not diminished the quality of the conference professional and social programs.

The theme of ascilite 2010 was curriculum, technology & transformation for an unknown future – more e e cummings. I presented a paper based on data collected as part of the LTPF project I shared with Karen Noble and Birgit Loch (Lyn Brodie). It was title, “Preparedness for flexible access to learning materials: How ready are university students and staff?”, and was co-authored with Birgit Loch (now at Swinburne), Joseph Mula (Faculty of Business), and Jerry Maroulis. Those who may be interested can find that paper in the online proceedings. Others from USQ at ascilite 2010 included Petrea Redmond, Shirley Reushle, Michael Sankey, and Helen Farley who were there to present papers to which other USQ staff had also contributed.

The keynotes were interesting and relevant: Jan Herrington (Murdoch) on authentic learning and new technologies, Lev Gonick (Case Western Reserve) on building a smart connected city (with hints of what the NBN might offer), Thomas Reeves (Georgia) on design research and blended learning, Ron Oliver (ECU) on designing for learning, and Martin Oliver (UK) on games and simulations.

Other sessions that I attended addressed a variety of topics, including: TPACK in teacher education, student voice in DE, multimodal learning environments at USQ, tinkering and sustainable innovation, social networking via ebooks, teaching in blended reality (regular classroom and Second Life simultaneously, indicators of engagement (academic analytics), social networking among university students, and teaching in virtual worlds.

Although there was no single stunning revelation among the presentations, the cumulative effect was to reinforce ideas about the importance of learning design (especially for authentic activities and assessment), the potential of social networking for learning, and the increased ease with which the necessary connections will be made if and when the NBN rolls out.


Dealing with complexity – David Jones & the third way for education

David Jones has posted an interesting piece about how he sees an alignment between the third way popularised in politics and what might be needed in education: The need for a third way « The Weblog of (a) David Jones.

He lines up the conservative/republican (in US terms) block with the traditional approach based on teachers doing their own thing in their own way without regard to any concerns about teaching and learning. The liberal/democrat block is aligned with the currently common approach to management by objectives and compliance. The third way is aligned with libertarian paternalism and accepts the inherent complexity of teaching with the expectation that teachers will find their way through by making decisions that incrementally improve teaching.

My own experience over the past few years has been of increasing focus on compliance with bureaucratic systems as a means of assuring quality. At times it feels like a headlong dash back to the 19th century and hierarchies of command and control rather than moving forward into the 21st century and networks. Managers sometimes seem to be locked into a Theory X view that assumes the worst of everybody rather than assuming that most people, most of the time, will be doing their best.

All of this runs counter to the need to support development of sufficient variation in approaches to provide the basis for evolution by selection of more effective approaches. Requiring compliance to any system is a dead end strategy that assumes this is as good as it gets and leaves no scope for improvement by tinkering around the edges.

There is some benefit in ensuring that certain basics are in place but there is also room for some variation that provides scope for the next improvement to emerge.

Digital Literacy

At the 29 July meeting of Academic Board there was discussion of a proposal to change the document describing qualities of a USQ graduate to include mention of digital literacy. I remember the discussion clearly because there was a proposal that digital literacy be replaced by technological literacy, against which I spoke on the basis of technological literacy having a well established meaning, at least for technology educators and some engineers. The concept was one of the mainstays of the technology education course I taught from 2002 until 2005 and will emerge again when a similar course is offered from 2011.

Some members of Academic Board appeared to struggle with the meanings and distinction because they were, until then, unfamiliar with the terms which were not well defined in the proposal. The proposal was passed and digital literacy is now among the qualities expected of a USQ graduate but it seems likely that many of those who will be required to ensure the quality is developed may be unclear about what it is they are facilitating.

A document that I came across today via the Sixty Seconds newsletter from provides a useful definition of digital literacy and more. Hague and Williamson (2009) “use the term digital literacy to refer to the skills, knowledge and understanding that are required for digital participation” (p. 4). Although the document is pitched at digital literacy in school education it does provide some useful starting points for discussion, including a model of the processes that might be required for learners to demonstrate digital literacy through communication and enquiry.


Hague, C., & Williamson, B. (2009). Digital participation, digital literacy, and school subjects: A review of the policies, literature and evidence. Bristol, UK: Futurelab. Retrieved September 30, 2009, from

What are we protecting behind our course walls?

Peter Sefton has posted an impassioned plea to Stop saying ‘Protect our IP’ in educational contexts? In essence I think I agree with all, certainly most, of what he wrote but I might press a few points further and saw a few things that provoked comment.

After a brief discussion of the idea of IP, he hones in on copyright as the core IP issue:

There are two main areas where I think copyright might be relevant:

  1. Copyright in our courseware.
  2. Copyright in any materials which we use to support delivery of educational services.

Though given that we not only teach, but teach teachers I guess the lines between those are somewhat blurry.

[Update: As soon as I posted this I realized there is a huge third category – copyright in learner-contributed material. If we wanted to be like FaceBook we could assert copyright over that but I don’t think we would, would we?]

I have argued this week that one way to get benefit from our copyright is to license our materials under a creative commons license and let people use and adapt them, extending our commitment to Open Courseware.

There is no argument from me on the value of opening up access to our materials especially if we apply a CC licence (perhaps BY-NC-SA would be appropriate). That would be consistent with the USQ commitment to OpenCourseWare which was launched a couple of years ago with the required minimum of 10 courses but has not been extended or (in at least some cases) updated since then. It would also be consistent with a long time tendency of at least some USQ courses, open or not, to benefit from links to course materials produced by others. It would also recognise what has been evident since the OpenCourseWare movement began, that content is now widely available on the Internet and the real value offered by educational institutions is no longer in the content, if it ever really was, and is more in the interactions built around the content and the certification that may be offered.

I’ve argued recently against a model for production of course material that devalues the intellectual work entailed and may misrepresent authorship and dates of production. Treating content produced for courses as work of real value with proper attribution seems to be a preferable approach.

Of authorship and ownership

I’ve written on this topic previously (Chance encounters, May 2005) but I’ve been building up to another shot for some time and events today finally brought me to tipping point.

This morning one of the members of our University committee that deals with our LMS passed on a copy of an EDUCAUSE report (Diaz, 2009). The committee chair later circulated it to the entire committee and a few others. Evidently he thought it was important.

This afternoon Academic Board discussed fleximode, the tag used to refer to the policy that provides for all students in a course, whether studying on campus or at a distance, to have access to all the materials and experiences offered to support learning in the course. The term is not well understood across the university and is sometimes thought to represent another distinct mode of study alongside the more established on campus, external (correspondence) and online modes. Part of that discussion related to the adoption, from the beginning of 2009, of ICE (Integrated Content Environment) as the official means for producing course materials that can be delivered as web pages, on CDROM or in print. I’ve written previously about ICE (Why does PT keep going on …, November 2005).

The events of today are the proximate cause of this post but the urge goes back to January and February of this year when I spent rather more time than I had expected revising materials for a course I am teaching this semester. The course had been first developed several years ago and had been taught serially by at least 4 full-time or casual staff faculty members each of whom would have had opportunity, though not necessarily time allocated, to revise the course materials. Being a good corporate citizen, I thought it was time that I tried using ICE (rather than my preferred web editor) to prepare the materials. The most recent version available in ICE was that which was used in 2007 and I began working with those files in the ICE template.

I was prepared for the inevitable broken links to web pages that had disappeared since the materials were prepared. I was even prepared for some outdated references, phrasing that sat awkwardly with me, and occasional fractured syntax. I was surprised when I found discussion of what might happen in the late 1990s expressed in the future tense. Evidently the revisions had not been as recent, frequent, or extensive as I had hoped. Rather than a few hours of light editing I found myself engaged in several days of more extensive revisions to get the materials into a shape that I could live with.

As a consequence of that experience, I am more than ever determined not to engage in a similar editing process again and to avoid allowing material I have written to be similarly revised. In my previous post (Chance encounters, May 2005) I described the commonly used approach to revision of course materials and its inherent problems. At Academic Board this afternoon I noted the potential for academics teaching courses using such revised materials to be either credited with excellent materials or burdened with the stigma of less exemplary materials for which they may bear little or no responsibility. The lack of clear identification of authors on course materials and the tendency to show the date of publication as the current year regardless of actual revision history could be interpreted as fraudulent. Far better would be a system that followed the regular conventions of academic work by clearly indicating the provenance of the materials. Dated materials should be supplemented or replaced by new material.

The paper (Diaz, 2009) circulated by my colleagues this morning looks at some issues around intellectual property associated with e-learning materials and the particular challenges posed by use of Web 2.0 tools. It is written from an institutional perspective and argues strongly for adopting strategies that ensure ownership of IP in e-learning materials is clearly vested in the institution and that materials are stored on institutional systems. The discussion at Academic Board touched on similar issues.

It seems clear to me that both the challenges and the potential solutions are likely to be similar across institutions. I’d argue strongly that, for the reasons I outlined above, at Academic Board, and elsewhere (Chance encounters, May 2005), dilution of authorship and incremental revision of materials as practised now and advocated to some extent by Diaz (2009) should not be elements of a solution. In regard to encouraging, or enforcing, storage of materials on institutional systems, I suspect that the solution is tied to fitness for purpose. If the systems are well designed, most academics will take the path of least resistance because that will provide the easiest and most suitable solution for them and their institution. On the other hand, if poorly conceived or implemented systems make it more difficult to comply than to step around the system, there will be encouragement for non-compliance.


Diaz, V. (2009). Intellectual Property Policies, E-Learning, and Web 2.0: Intersections and Open Questions (Research Bulletin, Issue 7). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. Retrieved April 8, 2009, from

Learning outside the LMS

George Siemens in his Connectivism Blog has posted about what can happen when learners find that an LMS doesn’t provide what they need and step outside:

Administrators, learning designers, and teachers are facing a new kind of learner – someone who has control over the learning tools and processes. When educators fail to provide for the needs of learners (i.e. design learning in an LMS only), learners are able to ‘go underground’ to have their learning needs met.

This happened in a program I was recently involved in as a learner. An LMS was the main learning tool (which was a good choice for the program – many of the learners valued the centralized nature of communication and content presentation). After a short period of time, however, groups of learners ‘broke off’ from the program and started holding discussions through Skype, IM, wikis, and other tools. Learners selected tools that were more tightly linked to the types of learning tasks occurring. When the learning was content consumption or simple discussion threads, the LMS was fine. As the learning became more social, learners started using tools with additional functionality. The learning required by the instructors – assignments, discussions – still happened in the LMS. But much more meaningful, personal, and relevant learning happened underground – outside of the course.

As George notes, when learners go outside they may loose access to some of the supports offered by the facilitator, or otherwise, inside the course. Everybody looses direct access to what happens in the alternative spaces although some of what happens may filter back.

Coincidentally, Graham Attwell on The Wales-Wide Web has posted some reflections on a presentation by Scott Wilson questioning why, when we expect students to provide their own word processors and other tools, institutions insist upon providing the LMS. He suggests that it is about institutional control and argues that having students provide their own systems might encourage them to take control of their own learning.

These are challenging thoughts for systems that mostly work by channelling learners through a tightly controlled series of learning activities within a series of courses.

Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation

Learning Circuits has a new piece by George Siemens: Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation. It is a fairly lengthy piece and, as much as anything, represents some “thinking out loud” about learning and how we do it. There is a good deal about networks, a list of 8 principles and something about the implications for higher education and corporate training:

The connectivist view that learning is a network creation process significantly impacts how we design and develop learning within corporations and educational institutions. When the act of learning is seen as a function under the control of the learner, designers need to shift the focus to fostering the ideal ecology to permit learning to occur. By recognizing learning as a messy, nebulous, informal, chaotic process, we need to rethink how we design our instruction.

Instruction is currently largely housed in courses and other artificial constructs of information organization and presentation. Leaving this theory behind and moving towards a networked model requires that we place less emphasis on our tasks of presenting information, and more emphasis on building the learner’s ability to navigate the information—or connectivism.

Blogs, wikis, and other open, collaborative platforms are reshaping learning as a two-way process. Instead of presenting content/information/knowledge in a linear sequential manner, learners can be provided with a rich array of tools and information sources to use in creating their own learning pathways. The instructor or institution can still ensure that critical learning elements are achieved by focusing instead on the creation of the knowledge ecology. The links and connections are formed by the learners themselves.

Coincidentally, James Farmer has posted a link to a QuickTime movie rant in which he urges Kill your discussion board. The alternative is a mix of email, IM, blogs, VOIP and other communication channels already in wide use among learners.

(Via eLearnspace.)