Tuesday, January 27, 2009

5.*: The NetGen: Cause for CONSIDERABLE concern

I have blogged before here and especially in my previous (eBCNZer) blog (see especially "More on Net Gen nonsense") about the dangers of over-estimating the Net Generation when it comes to learning.

In my research for E-Primer 5, I found a recent (2009!) article by Malcolm Brown in EDUCAUSEreview, "The NetGens 2.0: Clouds on the Horizon". Of most concern to me are these findings from a Nielsen Norman Group study of teenagers using the Web for research:

“We measured a success rate of only 55 percent for the teenage users in this study, which is substantially lower than the 66 percent success rate we found for adult users.” The report added: “Teens’ poor performance is caused by three factors: insufficient reading skills, less sophisticated research strategies, and a dramatically lower patience level.”

Sounds like educational disaster to me. That adults achieved a higher success rate must surely indicate to even hard-nosed critics of the incumbent system that the Net Gen is in the sort of trouble that the Internet cannot fix (and has probably helped cause). Finally, at last, studies confirming that Prensky's claims about 'Digital Natives' as utopian learners are starting to be exposed as naked and horribly misleading. I have gone on before about the dangers of "Learning 2.0", have addressed the question "Are we getting dumber?" and the value of books as tools for engagement.

Interestingly Robert M. Hutchins, in his article "The Tradition of the West" (in an introductory volume to the Britannica Great Books series compiled in 1952), wrote as follows:

To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterised the West it is not necessary to burn the [classic] books. All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations.

That process, it seems, has started. Yeats said that "Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire". In our urgency to avoid the bucket, have we under-sold the fire? It seems, from various studies, that the flames of knowledge Yeats intended are being confused by some Net Genners for sparks of information. My personal fear: A generation of learners who rely on access to information that is miles wide, but whose appreciation of understanding is one-inch deep; who are able to name all Pokemon, but unable to appreciate the insight of Socrates; who are able to chat confidently about the latest movie, but unable to participate in the Great Conversation... a generation of pragmatic learners, ever ignorant of their own dependence on Google and the limits of what it can provide. This, from "Are we getting dumber?":

A search [online] for a ‘fact’ will reveal the answer quickly; a search for a complex question or issue such as ‘whether democratization favours equality or not’ renders a search engine largely useless (citing Jeanneney 2007).

Is the Net Gen aware of these issues? Studies suggest that they are not... what concerns me in particular is that edubloggers do not seem to be upset by them, either.

5.*: The wisdom of the crowd: Too risky as the basis for truth?

Wikipedia has announced its intention to tighten its editing policy, after two major inaccuracies were released on its site relating to two US Senators, neither of whom actually died on the day of Obama's inauguration (contra early Wikipedia reports). A system of flagged revision is proposed - a system that will increase accuracy, but decrease timeliness. The issue: "critics say that the process is labour intensive and some changes can take days, if not weeks, to appear."

Here we get to the nub of the epistemological issue. Do we value accuracy more than immediacy? Does 'free' outweigh 'reliable'? It seems problematic, if not impossible, to achieve both. It must also be remembered that Wikipedia does, in fact, have a volunteer army of editors... one major difference between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica is that the latter pays its contributors (and so, naturally, must have a revenue stream with which to do so).

I am impressed with the statement by Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica, who just a few days ago wrote:

"We believe that the creation and documentation of knowledge is a collaborative process but not a democratic one."

This is a subtle but valuable contrast. EB seeks to identify experts to be contributors, rather than an interested public. I continue to be amazed at how the "wisdom of the crowd" paradigm tries to cheapen the concept of expertise, as if those who have devoted years of study, reflection and practice to do with particular subjects are considered just another voice in the crowd. I'm not naive enough to suggest that experts have all of the answers, or that experts are infallible; self-criticism and an acknowledgement of one's own imperfect view are hallmarks of true expertise (at least in the humanities). Nor is it to suggest that people should not have opportunity to voice their own perspectives or understandings. Rather, a site claiming to be a storehouse of knowledge, and one whose readers are seeking objective, neutral and accurate information, must take care to ensure that objectivity, neutrality and accuracy are valued more than participation, openness, and immediacy - particularly when the latter threatens the former. Wikipedia has shown that the two sets of values can, in fact, be at odds.

Why is this post included in this blog? It raises questions of what it means to know, and what it means to prepare information (itself the fuel for knowledge). The Wikipedia model is one worth continual monitoring, as in some ways it measures the pulse of Web 2.0 and its promise for education.

Here is one way in which Wikipedia can be used effectively in education!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

4.*: JALN 12:3-4

The Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks is a long-standing and authoritative online journal dedicated to exploring the use of asynchronous technologies in higher education. I have drawn on it extensively for the fourth E-Primer, Online discourse (currently with reviewers!) What follows adds to the fourth E-Primer, due for release in March 2009 (following final editing).

So the latest edition of the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (JALN 12:3-4) has been released. There are some truly significant articles; here are my highlights:
  • Akyol & Garrison's "The Development Of A Community Of Inquiry Over Time In An Online Course: Understanding The Progression And Integration Of Social, Cognitive and Teaching Presence" adds to the validity of the Community of Inquiry framework (which is the framework providing the basis for E-Primer 4). Most significant in the finding that "social presence and teaching presence... changed over time while the proportions of cognitive presence... remained steady". Cognitive and teaching presence were also important for influencing student learning and satisfaction; social presence was not found to be as significant. This has important implications for efforts to establish 'online community' in formal education, which is also questioned in the E-Primer based on other evidence.
  • Moore, in her work "A Synthesis of Sloan-C Effective Practices, December 2008", gives a wonderful overview of how practitioners are providing answers to questions relating to student satisfaction, learning effectiveness, scale (relating to efficiencies), access, and faculty satisfaction (all elements of quality in online education). Moore provides substantial tips for good practice in this one, drawing from actual practice.
  • Wang & Chen, in "Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence — A Practical Experience", outline the importance of effective 'rules' for online discourse in order to maximise cognitive presence. Their article includes a useful re-configuration of Activity Theory as it relates to online discourse, and a sound set of rules that might be provided to students at the start of the course (and even form elements of a marking rubric). The results were a "strong cognitive presence in the online discussion", the very thing online educators strive for. The 'rules' given on p.171 of the article are an essential reference. Wang & Chen are careful to note that rules must be both specific and flexible.
  • A literature review by Woo & Reeves, "Interaction in Asynchronous Web-Based Learning Environments", concludes that "pragmatic strategies for improving meaningful interaction in WBLEs" include "modeling and scaffolding, dividing the class into small groups, giving appropriate feedback, encouraging intrapersonal interaction, and using authentic activities".
It is encouraging to see this evidence-based scholarship continuing to explore online discourse. If elements of this coverage don't make much sense to you, it would be worthwhile learning more about the Community of Inquiry framework. It is proving a robust model for analysis and practice. For my own thoughts on it, wait for E-Primer 4!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

5.*: Second Life: "The potential to make an impact"

A YouTube video by Stacy Williams, research professor at Case Western Reserve University, outlines how Second Life is being used for educative purposes. Listen for this quote: "..trends indicate that this type of learning simulation has the potential to make an impact on transforming the future of education".

Nicely put. Just how realistic that potential is, and what its eventual scope might be, are yet to be determined. The video does show some ways in which Second Life has been used by the University (field trips, client assessment), which are reasonably predictable. Whether the potential to make an impact makes a truly meaningful contribution to teaching and learning is a very open question. A New Zealand project is exploring things in detail; I am interested to see whether the results reveal anything further about the potential for education.

I remain skeptical. I suspect that the impact Second Life will make will be to find its place amongst the various pedagogical options already available to educators. Anyone still believe in pure m-learning?

Ah well. At least there's money to be made!