Categories
education technology

Using email as a learning management system

First of all, we should stop calling things like Moodle and Canvas “learning management systems”. At best they’re content, or student management systems. Pet peeve out the way? Tick.


I’ve been advocating for low-tech solutions to the problem of remote teaching and learning ever since I noticed how many people seemed to be pushing for things like synchronous, video-based lectures during the current crisis. Usually, I’m a fan of technology-based learning and teaching but that’s with the assumption that everyone has good access to the internet and appropriate devices. Now, with students and educators working from home, and acknowledging that we’re all reacting to a crisis – rather than implementing a carefully planned, coordinated, coherent strategy – I think that the only ethical option is to use as little technology as possible.

I honestly that that we can get 90% of where we need to be simply by using email.

I’ve posted what I think a set of universal principles would look like in this situation, which disadvantages the fewest students as little as possible. And the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching has shared their list of low tech principles for remote teaching, which is a great resource. And during the process of reviewing these principles I started wondering what the simplest solution might look like, assuming that at least some form of internet access is a minimum requirement (our students are at home and can’t travel). And I honestly think that email could substitute as a learning/content management system.

Some of the features of an LMS that most educators would consider to be core to its purpose include being able to do the following:

  • Upload and store content in a variety of formats e.g. text, slideshows, video, audio, etc. You can attach anything to an email.
  • Access materials anytime, from everywhere. There are email clients for virtually every device and operating system, all of which enable offline access. Email never “goes down” and is one of the most reliable systems on the internet.
  • Provide asynchronous access to all of the relevant content and communication for a module. Email doesn’t require that you interact in real time.
  • Teachers can modify the content, and students can see the updated material. Email is sorted by date, so new content is presented first, which means that updated attachments appear at the top of the filtered list.
  • Students and teachers can re-use the material any time they need. Offline access means that attachments are available all the time (or students can download them onto their local storage).
  • Students can learn collaboratively. The ability to have threaded conversations in a mailing list means that collaborative discussion is possible (it may be awkward, but it’s possible).
  • Assessments can be completed by students within the LMS. You can include any questions or tasks you want students to complete within email.
  • Should be simple to use. No-one needs training on how to use email.

There is also a well-documented disadvantage of the LMS; it requires a technology infrastructure that is non-trivial to manage. In fact, we have higher education institutions here in South Africa that simply don’t have the technical infrastructure and ability to maintain an LMS. But they all have email.

So it seems that email as a technology satisfies all of the requirements of a learning management system. But how would you use it? I think that with a few basic naming and organising conventions, you could ensure that all students across a programme could be up and running with this system in a few minutes.

Basically, educators within a programme would need to agree on a Subject line naming convention e.g. Module name – Type of email – Title/content. For the module that I teach, it might look something like this: PHT402 – Announcement – Submission dates, PHT402 – Assessment – Quiz no. 2, or PHT402 – Notes – Health and human rights. Students could filter their emails by the module code (“PHT402”) which would only display emails for that module, as well as by Type (“Announcement” or “Notes”). Everything relevant for those search terms would be presented in reverse chronological order (most recent first) making it very easy for students to find whatever they’re looking for.

You can see how it’s possible for students and lecturers to do the following:

  • Search and filter their system for the content they need, when they need it.
  • Communicate privately with the lecturer, or with a learning group (3-5 peers), or with everyone in the class.
  • Threaded email discussions look a lot like discussion forums, which are often touted as an important feature of the LMS, and which would work perfectly well by email.
  • Write an essay that includes links to sources, embedded images, complex formatting, etc. for an assignment, directly within the email client.
  • Embed Google Form-type quizzes directly into the email so that students can complete them without leaving the email client.

Since email provides offline access students could connect to the internet, download everything they need, and disconnect. Then they’d review the work and communication while offline, compose responses and any questions they might have, reconnect, upload it all, and then disconnect again. This would all happen without having to “go” anywhere (no browsers, links, logins, or apps other than the email client) or do anything. I honestly that that we can get 90% of where we need to be simply by using email. Everything else might just be more of a distraction.

Categories
research social media

Zotero

I first mentioned Zotero a while ago but didn’t go into very much detail in that post.  Since then, I’ve been experimenting with it a bit and am really starting to enjoy it.  It’s a Firefox extension that facilitates the research process by streamlining the collection of information accessed through the browser.  With more and more academic content becoming available online through open access journals, it’s an innovative method of aggregating and managing content for research.

Zotero has a decent set of content management features that really do a good job of making it easy to work with the information you save.  I won’t go into the specifics here because the quick start guide makes it really clear.  As well as the content management features, it’s also very good at recognising semantic content on the web and giving you options to import that content into it’s database.  For example, if you’re browsing PubMed, Zotero is able to import citation information and then to export it in many different formatting styles, including APA.

I actually don’t use Zotero for any academic content at the moment.  What I find it really useful for is annotating and working through ideas I come across in blogs.  I find that I can clarify my own thoughts around educational technology, using Zotero as a scrapbook to develop those ideas.  Which brings me to my only problem with Zotero.  I only use it for blogs right now because it’s only really useful for content you access through the browser, which is a major limitation for me.  While it’s true that most of my literature is accessed through the browser initially, I still keep local copies that I prefer to work with.

Although I think the application is great in it’s current form, I’m really hoping that the developers expand it’s scope.  Maybe make it a standalone tool that I can use to manage all my articles, no matter if they’re on- or offline and no matter what format they’re in.  I also need more space within the app because sometimes it can feel crowded (especially the right hand panel), and making it standalone will free up a lot of real estate by taking it out of the browser.  Note: you can run Zotero in a full tab, but I like to be able to read the blog while making notes.

Those things aside, this is a great browser extension that I’d definitely recommend checking out.

Screenshot of Zotero
Screenshot of Zotero

Categories
Uncategorized

Managing content 2.0

The past year or so has seen a move towards more sophisticated uses of the so-called “Web 2.0” technologies, a term that’s thrown around a lot these days and a formal definition of which is proving elusive. Rather than trying to define and structure it, I prefer to think of “Web 2.0” as an organic approach to computing…a merging of the traditional desktop application and online services. At some point I think there’ll be no difference between “online” and “offline” and indeed the boundaries are already increasingly difficult to make out. Google Gears, Adobe’s Integrated Runtime (AIR) and Mozilla’s Prism project are all looking to further blur the lines between the Internet and your personal computer.

Two good examples of the integration between desktop application and a user’s online experience are Zotero and Scrapbook. Both are Firefox extensions that are easily installed and have a shallow learning curve.

Zotero is fully integrated with Firefox and is described as a “next-generation research tool” that allows a user to capture relevant data from sources while browsing and storing that information in a local database for offline use. It “recognises” the structure of content and “knows” where to store information like title, author, publication and other bibliographic data. With academics and researchers spending more time finding their sources online, a tool that facilitates the process of managing content is most certainly welcome.

Articles discussing Zotero:

Scrapbook is another Firefox extension that adds a significantly enhanced note-taking feature to the browser. Users are able to capture sections of webpages (or entire sites) while browsing, edit text, make notes and add comments. Again, this content is stored locally for offline use.

Both of these extensions are examples of how new technologies are blurring the lines between “online” and “offline” and creating tools that take advantage of new approaches to content management. With the huge volume of information available today, a new approach to the managment of that content is necessary. Gone are the days when renaming a document is enough. Together with desktop search and tagging, tools like Zotero and Scrapbook are essential for anyone with a vested interest in managing a large volume of content.

Edit (07/07/08): I can’t believe I left out PDF Download, another Firefox extension that makes managing PDF documents within the browser a lot easier and more flexible.  Up until the latest release, my main use of it was the option to automatically download any PDF document, rather than open it in the browser, a process that’s really time consuming.  With the newest version, PDF Download also offers the option of converting any webpage you’re reading into a PDF, which I find really useful as I prefer working with PDF’s instead of saved webpages.