The Tower and the Cloud

Just a quick pointer to what I think is going to be a great read.  “The Tower and the Cloud” is a new publication by EDUCAUSE, which looks at the impact of cloud computing on higher education.  The book is divided into broad sections, each containing several chapters, with each chapter written by a different author who is a prominent figure in the field of e-learning.

I’m particularly keen on the section, Open Information, Open Content, Open Source, containing the following chapters (I’ve linked to the downloadable chapters):

The book is available as a free download, as well as a paid-for hardcopy that can be shipped internationally, and is published under a Creative Commons license.  I’m really looking forward to reading this.

Note: EDUCAUSE is a “…nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology”.

Other books available from EDUCAUSE include:

Lyx: separating content and style through document processing

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, mainly because I haven’t read anything interesting in that time, which is mainly because we’ve spent the past month or so gearing up for undergraduate exams.  Now that exams are effectively over, we’re marking…sigh.  Together with the exams, our department is on a writing workshop in the hope that by the end of the year we’ll each have a peer-reviewed article ready for publication.  While this is a great way to bite the bullet and get something out, it does take away time from the more interesting task of finding and blogging about cool stuff.

So it’s the weekend, I have a huge pile of scripts to mark and an article to complete for review on Monday…and here I am, working on this post.  But it’s work-related, so I don’t feel bad.  The reason it’s work-related is because I’ve recently started using a document processor for writing articles, called LyX.  A document processor differs from a word processor (like OpenOffice) in that it attempts to separate the process of writing from the process of typesetting, or formatting.

This separation of content and style is hardly a new concept but has been increasingly evident in the whole Web 2.0 hype that makes use of the idea that content wrapped in meaningful XML tags can be syndicated in almost any form and presented in almost any format.  In the early days of the web, it was also being addressed in the argument against HTML tags that described the formattin of content, rather than it’s structure.  CSS is what allowed that separation to take place, but not to the degree that XML does.  While this isn’t really the place for that discussion, I just wanted to highlight the point that the separation of content and formatting has been an issue since we started using computers to write documents (here’s a great video by Michael Wesch that demonstrates this idea really well).

The earliest word processors gave everyone the power to format content, which could be argued is a good thing because choice is important, right?  While the ability to decide text colour, font size, page margins and the thousand other options present in a word processor may be great for that letter to your mom, it’s almost meaningless when it comes to academic writing, the formatting of which is already determined by either your institution or publisher.  So when I write, why should I have to bother with formatting?

This is where LyX comes in.  By separating the writing process from the typesetting process, Lyx gives the writer the ability to concentrate on writing, rather than mucking about with trying to figure out how to insert and keep track of in-text citations and all the other soul-destroying aspects of computer-based academic writing.  It also allows you to output your document in any of the major formats you require.  For example, my institution uses the APA style of document formatting, so when I’m done writing, I literally press a button that outputs my work to a PDF document, already formatted for publication.

This post has gotten incredibly long, so I’ll end with a few links to more information if you’re interested in checking it out.  A word of warning though, if you’re not used to the idea that content and style are fundamentally different, there’s a steep learning curve when switching to something like Lyx.

Technology in the classroom: can we make it work?

I’ve been trying to think how to use technology to enhance both my teaching and my students’ learning and it’s proving more difficult than I’d initially thought.  I like to think that laptops and internet access in every classroom give students real-time access to related content while they engage in meaningful discussion, but this will never happen.  Their Facebook profile and IM conversations are far more interesting than the “Pathology of stroke” or “Justice in access to healthcare”.  And that makes sense in a bizarre kind of way.  Even while they (or their parents) pay vast sums in tuition fees to have the privilege of attending university, most students (in my very limited experience) see studying as inherently boring.

Some studies in American classrooms have all but proven that the distraction of the Internet in class is too strong for students to ignore and that most of the lesson is spent checking email, catching up with friends and even shopping.  Now, after that initial foray into “embracing” technology”, it seems as if there’s a move towards banning laptops altogether.

This is the kind of about-turn I’d like to avoid.  E-learning, while I have no doubt will be a revolution in education, is not the idea that technology for it’s own sake is the way forward.  Just because it’s possible to have Internet access in class, does it mean that we should?  Rather, teachers must take an approach whereby technology is used in a way that enhances it’s advantages, while minimising the disadvantages.  Just because I put the course reader online doesn’t make it “e-learning”, and neither does having a student blog.  The technology in itself doesn’t enhance learning in any way, but how you use it can have powerful implications.

I’ve been toying with the idea of using a wiki to manage a course, whereby any change to either the course content, test schedule or mark availability can by syndicated through RSS to all the students in the class.  Students will have to, as a course requirement, both add to and edit course content (obviously moderated), which can also then be tracked.  I think that this may be one way to encourage them to actively engage with the content, as well as introduce concepts like peer review, referencing and drafting, which may also improve their reading and writing skills (another huge problem).  The point though, will be to make the learning outcomes apparent from the beginning, so that students know what’s expected of them.  Merely creating a wiki and telling students to “Go forth and create content” isn’t enough.

I think that technology will fundamentally change the way we teach and how students learn, but not just by throwing technology at the problem.  The trick is to figure out how to use technology to facilitate deep learning by getting students to actively engage with the content.  A bad teacher will continue to teach badly, no matter how much “technology” they use.

Link to the article that inspired this post:

6 minute walk test and pulmonary hypertension

The 6 minute walk test is a common outcome measure of endurance used by physiotherapists and students.  I’m not sure of the full significance of this article, but it seems to indicate that the test may not be a useful indicator of outcome in patients with mild pulmonary hypertension.

Just thought I’d put this out there.  Here’s the link to the article:

Curriculum and quality: keynote from SAAHE conference 2008

I finally got around to finishing my notes from the conference.  This keynote presentation from Professor J. Grant, Director of the Centre for Education in Medicine at the Open University, is about how the quality of medical education is measured, and how that measurement could be improved.

You can download my notes in the following formats:

Microsoft Word

Mobile computing

A few weeks ago I presented at an e-learning colloquium here on campus, where I briefly summed up a few ideas of where I think technology can add value to education.  One of the points I finished with, was the idea that computing is becoming more mobile, with cellphones taking over roles traditionally attributed to laptops.

I just wanted to point out this article suggesting that an iPhone may be a suitable laptop replacement.  No definite conclusion is reached in the article, but there are a few interesting ideas presented.

Here’s the link:

It should be noted that the blog in question is “The Apple blog“, so objectivity may be lacking 🙂

Principles of good assessment

I attended an assessment and learning workshop today and while the presentations were informative, I just wanted to highlight the principles of good assessment taken from my faculty’s assessment policy.  Since I don’t have a background in education, guidelines like these are incredibly useful when creating assessments for students.

  1. Responsibility for assessment – the module co-ordinator is responsible for designing the assessment and mark allocation.
  2. Assessing against outcomes – performance should be measured against pre-determined expectations of achievement (learning outcomes).
  3. Assessment criteria – the expectations of the assessment, including the specific criteria of judgement, should be available to students to ensure transparency.
  4. Validity and appropriateness – the assessment methods and tasks should accurately match what is being assessed (knowledge, understanding, content, skills, behaviour, etc.)
  5. Authenticity of evidence – measures should be taken to ensure that the evidence produced by the student is attributable to the student.  With group work, the lecturer must verify that each student has made a fair contribution.
  6. Formative and summative assessment – assessment should judge students’ performance (summative), as well as provide feedback to enhance learning (formative), although not simultaneously.  Students should be aware of whether they are being assessed formatively or summatively at each assessment.
  7. Continuous assessment – should have a strong formative focus and be undertaken over the course of the module.

For me, just knowing about these guidelines has already made a significant difference in how I approach the assessment of students.  Clearly, it’s not enough to re-use old test papers and merely change the scenarios.  We need to make sure that we’re actually testing what we set out to test, as well as linking the assessment to the curriculum and learning outcomes.

One other point I want to mention is a comment made by one of the presenters, regarding the importance of testing students interpretation of the course content.  This is one way to make sure that students actually understand what they’re writing, rather than just regurgitating bullet points.

The Cape Town Open Education declaration

Open education, open resources, open courseware, open content and so on, is something that I believe very strongly in.  Without going into much detail, I think it’s important that those of us who can and who have, do something positive for those who can’t and who don’t.

The Cape Town Open Education declaration is exactly what it says, a declaration of intent to pursue and promote the following three strategies (my paraphrasing):

  1. Encourage educators and learners to create, use, adapt and improve existing open educational resources.
  2. Call on educational authorities to release their resources openly.
  3. Encourage policy makers to highlight and prioritise open education.

Go to the site, read what it has to say, do your own research into the pros and cons of open education and then consider what you can do, either as an educator or a student, to positively impact the future of education.

Here’s the link:

The Social Media Classroom: open source collaborative teaching tool

The Social Media Classroom is a web-based teaching platform developed by Howard Rheingold, the author of Smart Mobs, which uses new web technologies like blogs, wiki, RSS, etc. to encourage collaboration between students and teachers.   I just came across it this evening and would love to play around with it a little bit.  I may have to wait for exams to finish though.

Here’s the link to a talk that Howard gave at TED in 2005:

Here’s the link:

Multitasking and learning

This is just a quick post to point out this great article that explains why so-called “multitasking” in a classroom environment isn’t necessarily a good thing.  As much as we might get carried away with the notion that Wifi enabled laptops in classrooms will add value to students’ learning experience, it seems increasingly clear that this isn’t the case.  Instead, students disconnect from the reality of the experience in which reflection and engagement should be encouraged, preferring distractions like email, browsing, shopping and chatting.

While this isn’t going to be a problem with any of the courses I teach right now, it’s always good to remind myself that technology for technology’s sake is not the answer.

Here’s the link: