Category Archives: Learning technology

How secure are your course materials online?

If you’re using an online service such as Google Docs to share your teaching materials or for students to publish their work, you’ll never want to see a news item like this:


Gurgle Docs Is History

Disgruntled employee pulls the plug

Earlier today, a Gurgle spokesperson expressed regret that the popular document sharing service is no longer available.

“Everyone kind of assumed we had a big server farm running Gurgle Docs, but actually it was all on an old iMac in someone’s office. When that employee was laid off recently, he formatted the hard disk on the way out.”

The spokesperson continued that while the company had no backup and no way of restoring users’ documents, he was sure that users did have backups of any important files.
(cont on page 3)


Tongue in cheek, of course, but there’s a serious issue here: how to ensure the security and continued availability of online resources. Whether they are resources developed by the teacher or the learner, if there is only one accessible copy the resource is not secure.

While the incident described in the spoof news item above is very unlikely, a number of things can go wrong with online services. Firstly, the service can withdraw or stop developing a feature, such as Google did with Notebook which is no longer available for new users. If you’re lucky (as with Notepad), the service provider will let you export your data. Another example is the withdrawal of an RSS feed service by Facebook.

A more serious problem is when a service fails for business or technical reasons – this happened recently when ma.gnolia had a serious technical failure and user data was lost. Even if you were lucky enough to retrieve all or some of your data, this would clearly be a major disruption to a teacher relying on the service for course delivery.
(See also http://mashable.com/2009/01/30/magnolia-data-loss/)

Some learner-contributed content (such as forum postings) tend to be reasonably transient, and their loss might not be a disaster. But imagine the problems caused by loss of access to data where learners are encouraged to create an e-portfolio directly in Google Docs. As I’ve suggested elsewhere in relation to YouTube’s Quick Capture, it’s much safer to create local files and upload them than to work directly in the online service.

When incorporating the use of online services into a course, I recommend that teachers:

  • Check the terms of service – who owns the copyright of contributed content? Can the service provider start changing for the service? Do they have the right to withdraw the service without notice? Do they have the right to delete any content without notice?
  • Advise learners on clear strategies for ensuring backups of all files, and on any limitations imposed by the terms of service.

Loss of data can cause irreparable damage to a student cohort. Online services can prove to be very valuable components to teaching and learning, but we do need to take a few sensible precautions to ensure security of content and ongoing access. Most of us have experienced loss of data through careless backup procedures: the loss of teacher-generated and learner-generated content for a whole course could be much more embarrassing!

Games and learning: are they incompatible?

John Bohannon recently wrote in Science magazine about the review by a group of scientists of the game Spore from a scientific point of view (Flunking Spore). Given the comments of the reviewers, it’s clear that many aspects of the game do not provide an accurate model of evolutionary science. As the article states, ‘Spore clearly has little in common with science’.

The writer goes on to say ‘with very minor tweaks, the game could live up to its promise’. But the tweaks required to make it good science might easily make it a less engaging game. This is not to say that learning shouldn’t be enjoyable and engaging: just that what makes a game enjoyable and engaging might not be quite the same thing as what makes a game enjoyable and engaging. And that what makes a game engaging might be precisely because it is nothing like reality.

In his critique of the article, John Hawks counters the observation that Spore is not good science by saying ‘Dude, it’s a game‘. Exactly: the design imperatives for a successful game do not necessarily match the design imperatives for a learning experience. He even goes on to point out how some of the ‘tweaks’ that Bohannon suggests for improving the science of Spore would diminish its value as a game.

Games and learning are not intrinsically incompatible. But because games do not necessarily represent reality well, how we incorporate games into learning experiences can be all-important. If I was to incorporate Spore into a science class, I’d be trying to engage learners in a critical analysis of the science implicit in the game, not relying on the game to impart scientific principles.

Image: Giardia

Managing and publishing lists using Undone

I’ve recently been looking for a simple way to manage a list of my current projects and then provide a feed onto my blog. This would then let me keep an eye on where projects are up to, but also let me publish a list of my professional activities and let others know about the sorts of projects I’m involved with.

I tried Twitter but soon found it not ideally suited – it’s not easy to manage and edit Twitter posts, plus the whole social aspect got in the way somewhat! I really wanted something which would let me:

  • categorise and organise lists
  • change my mind and re-organise items
  • publish an RSS feed of list items

Undone

Now I’ve rediscovered Undone, a free online productivity tool which lets you manage your ‘to do’ lists and the bigger projects that they belong to.The great thing is that the author has now added widgets so I can publish my lists to my website. And the widget code relies on HTML, so should work in places where Javascript is not allowed. For example, here’s my Undone widget:

This widget shows up to 8 of the most recent items, and clicking on any item links to my Undone project page. There’s no way as yet to style the widget output using css, but that’s okay for me – the default output seems clean, clear and readable.

A tool for learners?

Undone provides a simple, work-focused tool for managing projects and actions. I can’t help feeling that’s something most learning management systems (LMS) lack, and something which could be a useful part of any personal learning environment (PLE). So I’m interested in a bit more investigation into how a tool like Undone could support learning. Maybe that’s something I need to add to my own to-do list…

Flexible learning planning guide

For a large institution, selecting a flexible learning software platform is a major undertaking, requiring careful consideration of many factors. Such a process can seem like overkill, however, when a smaller-scale development is planned. For example, one or more teachers in an institution might decide to pilot an online learning component as an action-research project. Or a small provider might decide to ‘put their toe in the water’ with flexible learning. From my experience, the people involved in such projects need some guidance but are not prepared to undertake a full needs analysis and evaluation process.

I started putting together the Flexible Learning Planning Guide for just these sorts of situations. It’s informed by my own work and also by research such as Chickering and Gamson’s 7 Principles, which I’ve found very useful as a framework for developing teaching and learning.

I believe there’s a need for something like this to complement the sorts of rigorous development processes called for in models such as the eLearning Maturity Model: not because they are not valid but because small-scale projects sometimes just need a bit of guidance to get started.

The guide is based around pedagogical processes rather than software features. And I deliberately left out many aspects of good practice because I wanted to keep the list short – it currently comprises just ten practices and I’ve had to resist the temptation to add to this. For example, I’ve deliberately left out any practices relating to assessment as that is often excluded from such ‘first steps’ projects because it’s such a high stakes component.

The guide reflects my interest in constructivist approaches to learning and the use of tools such as blogs and wikis. It also avoids providing a simple checklist of features – because good practice doesn’t arise automatically from software features, but from how effectively they are used.

Download the guide

Being critical of the technology

Technology delusions

I’ve recently been reading In the Kingdom of the Unabomber* by Gary Greenberg. The Unabomber of course is Theodore Kaczynski, who was sent to jail for using letter bombs to carry out a campaign of terror, killing 3 people. As someone one who’s been enthusiastically promoting the use of technology in education for many years, I find myself challenged by one section:

Technology not only helps us to accomplish things, with the occasional failure or accident or frustration; it also constructs us as the kind of people who are hard-pressed to be sufficiently critical of technology… no one really understands how we can listen to another report about the greenhouse effect even as we drive our cars, festooned with ‘Save the Earth’ bumper stickers, to fetch a loaf of bread.

We tend to ignore evidence of rising climatic temperatures.Now it’s pretty hard to argue that there isn’t some truth in this last statement, although thankfully few people are driven to Kaczynski’s reaction to technology!

Is education immune?

To assume that this type of technological delusion applies to other applications of technology in society, but not to education technology, doesn’t seem supportable. So as education technology enthusiasts, in what ways might we be deluded about the real impacts of technology on education? I suspect one key delusion is that we still too often see technology as an enabler for doing what we’ve always done in the past, only faster and more conveniently. Education technology specialists need to be sceptical as well as enthusiastic, and avoid the delusions about technology that we see elsewhere in society.

Graph by Hanno

* In The Best of McSweeney’s Vol 1, Dave Eggers (ed), Penguin, London 2004.