Monday, December 7, 2009

Week 10 - Looking Back | Looking Forward, 12/2

This post constitutes the final entry in a series of reflections, musings, and claims in response to learning experiences afforded by the Web-based Technologies in Education (EDUC 391X) course at Stanford University. As stated in week 1, the focus of this course has been the use of "web technologies to help educate and empower the most vulnerable, underprivileged, or marginalized in reaching their full potential and attaining their life-long learning goals." In review of my experiences in this course, and specifically the exposition of our class projects, I am sobered by the substantial barriers, both technological and cultural, to effecting meaningful change at the margins of society. Nonetheless, I am heartened by the promise that well-intentioned, passionate efforts serve as the mechanisms for overcoming obstacles to change.

Our final presentation of course projects (previews of which were provided in week 8) revealed the power of individual passions to unite a larger audience. Predicated on the course theme described above, our exposition attracted a healthy crowd of interested students, faculty, entrepreneurs, and practitioners of social change from society at large. For my cohort and I, the opportunity to present and discuss our ideas enabled us to establish contacts with passionate individuals who may serve as collaborators in current and future work. As such, the exposition served an invaluable purpose.

Nonetheless, the experience was marked by a void of additional individuals and organizations with complementary interests, a condition that recalls my discussion of webinars from week 2. Although, with the much appreciated assistance of SUSE IT and the vision of Dr. Kim, our exposition was streamed live over the internet to carry our proposals to interested viewers, we were unable to avail of potential responses in this one-way model. The use of an interactive forum might have alleviated this issue, but technical limitations would likely have limited the experience, as evidenced in our week 9 foray into mobile learning. The truth is, despite incredible technical advances, no existing form of interactive technology will replace the richness of live interpersonal interaction, where all manner of subtle, human cues combine to convey meaning. We must not forget that it is the human element that drives change, not merely ideas. Ideas that do not relate back to the human experience are likely misguided and impotent.

Finally, returning to the theme of this course, it must be considered whether the approach of adapting technical models from the privileged domain, such as webinars, to the margins of society can effect meaningful change. Although numerous projects, such as those described in week 2, have demonstrated that this model is efficacious, it is prudent to consider the implications of such an approach. Surely, the application of technology for the dissemination of information has and does evince positive change, but we must take care to do so in a way that respects and preserves the valuable elements of local culture, whether or not this adds complexity for those of us situated in an affluent society. Engaging local communities in the process of building unique solutions from the ground upward would not only result in culturally appropriate manifestations of technology, but a tight coupling of local expression and technological solutions would yield increased viability and sustainability, two cornerstones of effective solutions.

In closing, I wish to hearken back to my conclusion from week 1, which adequately summarizes a sustainable approach to social change:

Although the barriers to deploying empowering web-based technologies are substantial, ranging from distance, language, bureaucracy, and instructor training, we can be heartened by the optimistic conclusion that any marginal expansion in educational opportunities is a measure of success. Even so, success may be difficult to come by, as illustrated by Dr. Kim's admonition that we must be prepared to fail seventy times for every achievement. In such times, a commitment to the moral obligation of sharing educational opportunities must be a sufficient motivation.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Week 9 - E-learning in Action, 11/18

With Professor Kim on philanthropic hiatus in the Middle East, our weekly in vivo seminar took the form of an in silico e-learning session. Fittingly, the message matched the medium, as Dr. Curtis Bonk, Indiana University professor and author of The World is Open, availed of this pedagogical opportunity to relate his thesis that the emergence of the Internet and online sharing technologies have resulted in a world in which "you can have an [educational] impact on anyone anywhere on this planet at any time of day" (Prequil, p. 3). Bonk's refrain, "the world is open!" is not merely a descriptive message. Rather, it is a call to action to utilize collaborative technologies to promote the free and open sharing of ideas for global enrichment.

Message aside, a skeptic may point to this very session as an example of the perils of distance learning, primarily due to inadequate technology: a video-based WebEx conference with accompanying speaker-phone. Although we comprised two invested parties, a combination of poor audio and video fidelity compromised communication. This became immediately apparent when Dr. Bonk began referring to invisible slides, prompting an investigation of the technology itself. This resulted in an agreement wherein we would manually advance the presentation slides at his direction. More critically, we found it particularly difficult to pose inline questions, as most attempts to visually or aurally gain Dr. Bonk's attention were met with failure.

Nonetheless, further reflection suggests that this learning opportunity provided a net positive value, particularly given that we formed a mature, willing, and engaged collective. Despite technical difficulties, Dr. Bonk's message, and, more importantly, his passion, were evident to those of us in the audience. We clearly learned from this exchange, and at least one student walked away with an increased understanding of the state of web-based collaborative technologies and their potential to enlighten the world.

One example of the proliferation of ideas that would not have been possible without this exchange, commenced with Dr. Bonk's casual reference that multiple notable innovators (ranging from Jeff Bezos of to Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google) emerged from Montessori educational systems. This reinforced, in me, the critical role played by creativity in the advancement of society, and caused me to wonder if the Montessori curriculum expressed some of the elusive characteristics of the Creative Domain of Learning (which I proposed in Week 3, and expanded upon in Week 6). As a result of the transmission of a single idea, I commenced a cursory search of the Montessori methodology, and found the following relevant assumptions (source):
  • Children are capable of self-directed learning.
  • Children learn through discovery to correct their own mistakes instead of relying on a teacher to give them the correct answer.
It is not difficult to conclude that these pedagogical characteristics protect and foster inherent creativity, and likely contributed to the development of the aforementioned exemplars of innovation in our modern society. The codification of these attributes into a Creative Domain of Learning may be the key to affording likewise opportunities to all students.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Week 8 - Principles of Presentations, 11/11

As in Week 4, our latest course session consisted of participant presentations of custom digital artifacts. Rather than summarize innovative media or projects, our collective mission was to present unique solutions to the education needs of the most vulnerable, underprivileged, or marginalized members of society. Topics included comparative cultural timelines, culturally situated writing projects, language development through comic strips, school creation in rural India, video solutions in biology education, preservation of native languages, de-marginalization of senior citizens and foster children, pedagogical tools to address dyslexia, promotion of multicultural understanding via film, increasing music awareness in urban youth, empowering the homeless, combating ADD, bullying prevention, addressing childhood depression, healthcare resources for the elderly, and culturally appropriate disease prevention.

Following the presentations in Week 4, I utilized this space to evaluate the effectiveness of various media formats for web-based teaching technologies. In this iteration, I wish to investigate the particular concerns of presentations and the prerequisites for their success. Not surprisingly, an effective model in this endeavor is ABCD (described here). For example, an analysis of ABCD in preparation for the presentations of last week may have yielded the following:
  • The Audience consists of the EDUC 391 course cohort and instructor. Members are sympathetic to the cause of addressing the needs of marginalized/vulnerable/underprivileged populations, and express a sincere interest in developing novel technological solutions to these needs.
  • The desired Behavior is an understanding of the education need, empathy for the target population, basic comprehension of the proposed solution, and assurance that design and cultural principles have been incorporated into artifact creation
  • The Conditions consist of an intimate classroom with technological support for a visual projection of a computer-based presentation. The presentation will be given in sequence with 16 others, restricted by a temporal limit of 5-7 minutes.
  • The Degree to which behaviors should be achieved is a sufficient understanding and interest to promote at least one informed followup (as opposed to clarification) questions from all audience members (assuming an absence of temporal constraints)
Although these considerations appeared to be generally made by members of the cohort, the distinctive nature of each presentation reflected divergent beliefs in how best to achieve them. The greatest conflict lay between the conditional temporal limitations, and the desire to achieve the basic behavioral outcomes of comprehension, empathy, and assurance of rigor. For example, My approach favored a visual assurance of adherence to design principles, despite the fact that the content could not be adequately covered within the temporal constraints. In contrast, Paul Franz opted for an emotive visual presentation that attempted to inherently reflect a consideration of design and cultural principles. Although an assessment of the relative effectiveness of these two presentations is difficult, given that temporal constraints curbed the potential for questions, my observation is that the latter prompted a greater degree of engagement among the audience.

This exercise is helpful in preparing for the rapidly approaching final project exposition. Although the behavioral objectives for this event will be similar to those of the class presentation, the environmental aspects will differ greatly. To wit, the format will be that of a conference rather than a presentation, the audience will include interested members of the population at large, including socially active members of the entrepreneurial, educational, and corporate communities, and the temporal constraints of presentation time (at least with respect to engaging observers) will be on the scale of seconds. Consequently, the success of my exposition presentation hinges on the creation of an evocative display that conceptually and emotively conveys the problem and the unique solution in a way that will promote queries and deeper conversations with the audience members.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Week 7 - Complementary Needs, 11/4

As in Week 5, our cohort was presented with an opportunity to interact with impassioned individuals working in the domain of web-based educational technologies. The first group, viewxtreme, comprised of Stanford alumni, are attempting to launch a web-based, immersive distance-learning service for higher education. To that end, they provide a single, wide-angle video feed of classroom lectures, replete with interactive features such as selective pan, tilt, zoom, resolution, and annotation. They were followed by a single grantee, Kristene, who is in the process of developing a social initiative to assist low-income Chicago families in locating ideal schools for their children.

While reflecting on this experience, I was struck with the complementary nature of the needs and provisions of our class and those of the presenters. In each case, the two parties were able to provide mutual benefit by merely exercising their needs! To wit, as members of a class concerned with web-based educational technology, we are in constant need of inspirational, innovative exemplars and opportunities to practice the generation of ideas. This need meshed perfectly with that of our presenters who desired interaction with inspired individuals in order to develop the vision for their projects. Via organization by an outside party (in this case, Dr. Kim), our groups were united to our mutual benefit. Interestingly, this is the very model that I am try to implement in my course project, a description of which is to follow. However, a more detailed description of the concept of complementary needs is merited:

Complementary Needs

This diagram demonstrates the role of complementary needs in two traditional relationships, as well as a third that I have developed for my project. The top figure demonstrates the traditional relationship between producer and consumer in terms of the complementary needs of income (on the part of the producer), and goods/services (on the part of the consumer). In the marketplace, the consumer and producer exchange respective needs to their mutual benefit. Notably, this traditional relationship tends to exclude vulnerable populations, as it requires that the consumer possess disposable income.

The central figure in the diagram demonstrates the traditional relationship between vulnerable populations and charity organizations. In many cases, the volunteer entity is in need of moral edification, which may be provided by meeting the needs of a vulnerable population. Although this arrangement is accessible to marginalized populations, it hinges upon the continued devotion and resource generation on the part of the volunteer group. Furthermore, such a model does not guarantee the long-term growth of the vulnerable population, as the provisions may only alleviate conditions rather than promote underlying change.

The final figure in the diagram demonstrates the purest form of complementary needs. In this relationship, an outside entity recognizes and joins two vulnerable populations whose needs satisfy each other. Although this relationship is not restricted to vulnerable populations (see the opening anecdote), it offers a unique solution that is both sustainable (the resources, in the form of needs, are endemic to each population) and viable (the strength of the relationship is a function of the continued needs of the populations).

This concept of complementary needs arose while I considered ways to address the educational needs of children with insufficient familial or community support. Both Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and Ecological Systems Theory suggest that scholastic success is dependent on a nurturing and supportive microsystem (i.e. the setting in which an individual lives). My insight, and the guiding principle behind my project, is that this need may be met by the needs of another substantial, marginalized population, senior citizens, many of whom are in need of ways to connect to the community at large. These two populations require only a forum in which to exchange the gifts they can freely offer (inspiration, stories, support on the part of seniors; purpose and connection to the community on the part of marginalized children) to satisfy their complementary needs of care, support, and a meaningful connection to the community.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Week 6 - Learning Theories, 10/28

The field of education is flush with multifaceted theories and paradigms, each with its unique perspective on the process of acquiring knowledge or skill. From Total Physical Response, to Field Dependency, to Principles of Encoding, the very existence of this multiplicity suggests that learning is both well understood and remarkably mysterious. Interestingly, the instructors of several of my Fall courses have been reluctant to promote theories of learning as lenses of assessment*, much to my dismay, and that of my cohort. Why is this so?

The answer is well-articulated by B. F. Skinner in "Are Theories of Learning Necessary?", published in volume 57 number 4 of The Psychological Review in 1950. Therein, Skinner argues of theories: "instead of prompting us to search for and explore relevant variables, they frequently have quite the opposite effect. . . . We are likely to close our eyes to [the problem of understanding learning] and to use the theory to give us answers in the place of the answers we might find through further study. It might be argued that the principal function of learning theory to date has been, not to suggest appropriate research, but to create a false sense of security, an unwarranted satisfaction with the status quo" (194). Still, I would suggest that even Skinner would be loathe to approach an assessment of learning in tablula rasa, without some semblance of a theoretical lens. His extreme position, nonetheless, serves as a clarion call for the use of theory as a vehicle to transport us to the edge of what is known, from where we must forge new paths of discovery.

As an exercise, our class utilized theories of learning to assess the websites and products of four companies addressing various educational and interactive challenges. Through this endeavor, it became clear that the application of learning theories facilitated rapid categorization and assessment of the products. However, when asked to consider what made these companies successful (or not), these same theories offered little support. As an additional exercise, we were asked to consider why Southwest Airlines or Federal Express were able to forge successful paths in entrenched markets. The answer (at least for the former), lies in their ability to understand the target audience and the conditions of the industry, and to apply creativity to determine a progressive solution (i.e. Southwest's concept of a uniform fleet servicing short, high-volume commuter flights).

Three weeks ago I proposed the Creative Domain as a missing dimension of learning in Bloom's Taxonomy. Professor Kim has suggested that my claim be augmented with a description of the levels of this domain, which, once established, could be used to inform as well as to assess creativity. Such an endeavor will require a great deal of observation and thought, but we can attain progress by working toward a definition of Creativity, as it applies to learning. Author Ken Robinson offers a compelling start during his TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk in 2006: "[Creativity is] the process of having original ideas that have value." He argues that Creativity is the one aspect of intelligence that can address what is likely to be an unpredictable future. Furthermore, and most critically, he suggests that Creativity is unlearned rather than learned. If this is the case, then it has serious implications for the field of education. Specifically, in order to foster creativity we would need to protect and nourish what preexists, rather than attempt to build creative constructs. A learning environment that would achieve this effect would create opportunities for taking chances, promote a culture where it is OK to be "wrong," encourage interdisciplinary vision and thought, and honestly embrace unique expressions of intelligence.

* One notable exception is Professor Kim's enthusiastic promotion of the classical Newtonian formula, F = ma as a learning theory. In short, m represents a learner while F is a measure of action or learning. In order to increase F, we need only apply a, an accelerating agent, to the environment. The directionality of the Force is dependent on the educator deriving a "contextualized 'a' for each student" rather than relying on the generic prescriptions of an established learning theory. This exercise in applying Newton's Second Law of Motion to learning theory prompts the question of whether a dynamic learning paradigm could be constructed based on a collection of physical principles.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Week 5 - Innovation, 10/21

Innovation. This elusive quality is lionized in Western culture, but seldom is it effectively engendered in formative educational environments. Rather, innovation is typically described as a moment of grand insight, a reduction that belies the multitude of labors and failures that pave the way for enlightenment and advancement. A singular example is Newton's formalization of gravitational laws. What was once a veritable history of exploration has morphed into the pleasant mythology that the concepts literally fell from the sky (in the form of an apple) into (onto) his head! This fallacy is perpetuated in the structures of formal schooling, where science is presented as a system of facts rather than a series of evolving descriptive accounts that comprise the general and current understandings of natural phenomena. A truly innovative Science Curriculum, that would, in turn, foster a true understanding of the enthusing yet painstaking process of innovation, would allow students to actively explore phenomena within the context of an historical tradition, rather than memorize "facts". In this system, failure would necessarily be accepted, and would not necessarily negatively impact assessment. This would allow for legitimate scientific exploration in lieu of the contrived experiments currently presented that insincerely promulgate the concept of consistent positive results.

Of course, how is it that I have come to make this suggestion? By having participated in both formal-traditional and exploratory scientific environments. Simply put, these insights came as a result of action, not by sitting under a tree in hopes that inspiration would merely fall from the sky. This approach, aptly defined as "Learning by Doing", is at the core of Action Research as presented by Dr. Kim. Its nuances may be better understood in comparison with two similar theories:
  • Grounded Theory: Provides a formulaic method of qualitative research that seeks to produce universal conceptual theories by way of analyzing incidences. Grounded Theory is based entirely in empirical data and follows a perpetual cycle of coding data into ever more generalizable theories, which are evaluated in terms of fit, relevance, workability, and modifiability. See Grounded Theory.
  • Design Based Research: Describes a research method consisting of cyclical steps of Design (from a theory), Experiment, and Redesign. See Design Based Research.
Action Theory, in contrast, is practitioner-directed exploration inspired by a lack of knowledge. The process may be divided into the following iterative stages (per Dr. Kim):

generate new questions and hypotheses

involve new constituencies and supporting resources

strategize new actions and enhance system designs
apply new system changes or re-implement

re-provide system tutorial

add/remove peripheral stimuli
gather and analyze new qualitative and quantitative data

interviews, observations, diaries or video recordings

document and record new phenomena, patterns or differences
compare with early assumptions, hypotheses or findings

Identify (new) problems and opportunities

share findings

Action theory promotes the maxim that innovation must be contextualized according to the 6 Cultural Principles: Situation, Culture, Usability, Theory, Scalability, and Sustainability. Furthermore, successful projects require that, an incentive structure be in place for each person in the project! It is important to emphasize that Action Theory does not eschew existing theories or formal research methods. Rather, their importance and function are adjusted to allow more room for exploration. ABCD is still necessary as are prevalent theories in the field (e.g. motivational. self-regulatory/metacognitive, and multi-media Learning Theories), which are critical for providing guidance and rigor when exploring the target domain.

Fittingly, our course session on 10/21 offered a case study in innovation, as presented by guests from the online charter school division of Edison Learning. The presenters exuded passion for education, reaching marginalized students, and expanding technology. On the one hand, they are quite innovative, particularly in the way in which they have developed a large, modular system that can be rather flexibly adapted to meet the needs of unique educational communities. Their increasing audience and diminishing attrition rates indicate that they are ever more effectively reaching students in need of additional resources (bully victims, pregnant mothers, those suffering from developmental disorders, students from poor schools, etc.). On the other hand, their paradigm still appears mired in traditional formalisms, particularly in the core lessons, which offer little freedom to explore ideas, interact creatively, or deviate in any way from the prescribed information. There was a considerable irony in their defense of this approach (albeit, primarily, to satisfy traditional school requirements) while they excitedly jumped from topic to topic while doing so! It seems that their core lessons could be (optionally) expanded to provide fora for students to explore the relevance of the information to their lives and communities, in new and innovative ways. Furthermore, 21st Century Learning skills of collaboration and communication could be better enhanced. On a promising note, their interactive discussion lounge appears to be moving in a direction where it can meet these additional learning needs.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Week 4 - Media for Education, 10/14

This week was devoted to the presentation of custom digital artifacts designed to summarize innovative media or projects addressing a social problem. The range of causes was equal parts inspiring and overwhelming, clearly demonstrating the vast space of vulnerable, underprivileged, and marginalized members of the global community. Topics included cultural unity among distributed Mexican migrants, preserving Native Hawaiian culture, literacy in rural India, Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, protection of East African street children, preserving vanishing cultures, supporting rural African farmers, empowering rural American children, collegial pedagogy, combating ADD, bullying prevention, addressing childhood depression, empowerment of the elderly, and disease prevention. The range of media used to convey each message was similarly diverse, and provided a compelling venue for comparing the educational efficacy of various technologies. The following is my assessment of each of the five classes of media employed in these projects:

Dynamic Visual Display
Description: 6 of 16 presentations consisted of movies, which present information along multiple sensory modalities at a pre-defined pace. Effectively, the viewer is placed into the position of observer in relation to a story teller.
Positive Attributes: When carefully constructed, the results can be quite engaging and evocative. The combination of visualization (particularly motion pictures) with appropriate music and/or voice overlay is considerably effective. The display of textual information, when constrained in terms of quantity, can have a similarly positive impact. The presentation is also constant over time (although the interpretation is in constant flux).
Detractions:The simultaneous presentation along multiple sensory modalities may be a confounding factor (e.g. written text accompanied by musical lyrics). Additionally, the temptation to employ complicated visual effects may result in an impressive display, but it may also distract from the desired message. Finally, the question of passivity is critical. The viewer of a movie has little choice but to process the linear sequence of information as presented. Opportunities to explore tangential questions or even interact with the artifact in a constructive manner are limited.

Interactive Web Page
Description: 5 of 16 presentations consisted of web-based artifacts, which offer interactivity and flexibility, particularly in the ability to present multimedia content.
Positive Attributes: In contrast with movies, web pages allow the user to determine the course of exploration within the content of the site design, as well as in outside domains connected by hypertext. Furthermore, variable and indefinite time is allowed for subjects to explore site elements.
Detractions:Web pages demand that users possess a sufficient level of intrinsic motivation to explore the presented content. Additionally, although web pages may be embellished with audio, video, and visual artifacts, the associative (rather than linear) nature of the content may diminish the emotional impact on the participant-observer.

Power Point Presentation
Description: 3 of 16 artifacts came in the form of power point presentations, which may be characterized as a hybrid between movie and interactive web artifacts. These naturally integrate informative text, inspiring images, video, and sound, albeit in a linear presentation. Critically, the presentation is designed to be mediated by a presenter.
Positive Attributes: The advantages of this form of presentation are similar to those of a web page, in terms of the multimedia content. Furthermore, the presenter may actively engage the audience and interactively determine the pace of presentation.
Detractions: Power Point may suffer from the same detractions as movie presentations, while not offering the same emotional engagement. The experience may also be inhibited by a poor presenter or the labor of traversing the slides on one's own.

Audio Stream
Description: 1 of the 16 artifacts consisted of an audio stream, which can also be classified as a linear presentation of information, albeit streamlined to one sensory modality.
Positive Attributes: This media format can be extremely engaging, not leastwise because the observer is invited to actively imagine visual content to complement the audio information.
Detractions: Many observers struggle to retain information presented solely through the spoken word. Furthermore, creative audio effects, while potentially entertaining, may serve to distract from the message.

Static Visual Display
Description: 1 of 16 of the artifacts was a static visual poster. Like web-based media, this format allows the user to freely traverse the visual and textual space of the presentation material.
Positive Attributes: Static visual displays may provide many of the same benefits as an interactive web page, including freedom of traversal, and effective interaction of visual and textual information. Also, a comprehensive understanding may be expedited by the entirety of the information being made present within the visual field.
Detractions: The format and size are limited in terms of sensory modality and quantity of information.

Clearly, the preference of one medium over another is predicated on defining the desired amount of user control / interaction, linear versus associative information display, and quantity and quality of sensory modalities to evoke the desired effect. To wit, these considerations ultimately informed the final format of my artifact, an interactive web page expressing the social problem of vanishing cultures. The initial step in creating the artifact was to apply the ABCD instructional design strategy (see Week 3). I determined that the Audience could be any interested party, with special consideration for uninformed, albeit generally well-intended, members of dominant Western societies. The Conditions of the learning environment were, accordingly, a prevalent dominant culture, readily accessible internet access, and sufficient leisure time to explore a site. The Behavior I wished to elicit was increased awareness of the importance of diverse cultures, the unfortunate reality that many are vanishing, and the available avenues for countering the problem. Furthermore, I wished to encourage further user exploration into vanishing cultures and potential solutions. With respect to Degree, as a result of interacting with the artifact, I intended for 100% of participant observers to demonstrate a positive increase in awareness and understanding of the issues, while at least 25% would embark on further exploration, and as many as 5% would seek involvement in a related initiative.

A web-based application seemed most appropriate to achieve these design goals. For one, the internet is widely accessible in developed regions, and the assumption that many members of developed societies are well-intentioned suggests that they will possess sufficient intrinsic motivation to explore the site. The site also allows observers to traverse paths of interest at any pace, while allowing for immediate exploration beyond the site via embedded links. Furthermore, the web interface allows for the presentation of visual images that evoke emotion (e.g. the cultural images and the inverted world map), poignant text, and simple visual effects (e.g. the "disappearing" title). Finally, the format is incredibly extensible, allowing for continual updates, which is critical for the scope of this particular artifact. Ideally, the site would allow participants to add their "pins" to the map, thereby raising awareness about cultures and projects of special interest to them.