Snoop, snoop, or: as the crow flies…

by Yule Heibel on July 14, 2005

I’ve been immersed in a crash course — actually: a snooping extravaganza — on technology and education, the marriage thereof. And in the process, I have came across some very interesting sites, information, insights. Most of the results have to do with questions relating to issues concerning my children’s education, but I want — as a kind of electronic bookmark or placeholder — to mention some of the more interesting stuff I came across. As is typical of these websearches, I can’t even remember how I found some of the links — it’s the web, right? But they’re good’uns.

First, there’s a local guy right here in lovely Victoria, BC, who writes a very very informative blog focussed on education technology issues, Scott Leslie of Ed Tech Post, whose links in turn have taught me about the Sakai Project and its recent release of Melete, a “lesson builder that allows instructors to publish learning sequences that can be created by using a built-in rich text editor, uploading learning objects, or pointing to existing URL resources. Instructors can design content that supports instructor facilitated learning or system managed self-study.” Scott would seem to have several hats, one of which makes him part of the Edu Tools team, a regional outfit (i.e., British Columbia and Washington State) focussing on education technology; and another hat has him affiliated with BC Campus, an open source online repository of distance learning in BC.


The reason I’m interested is because my kids’s distance ed school uses some e-learning tools, but I also wonder whether the institution has any clear affiliation with the open source community or whether it has enough staff onboard really to mine the depth of material out there…. As I said: snoop, snoop. There is so much.

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, it just brought her back.

Through Scott Leslie’s pointers, I also found Blender, a free open source application for creating animations and 3-d figures on game pages, and also through Leslie I “met” Lanny Arvan, an economist at U. of Illinois/ Urbana-Champaign, “who had a midlife crisis and turned to learning technology by accident. Now I’m the main Ed Tech guy for the campus and work in CITES.” He writes a great blog called Lanny on Learning Technology.

And whew — lots of pointers from Lanny, too. Today and yesterday Arvan posted entries on how to engage students in large lecture classes, which in turn included a pointer to a great article about Prof. Donna Charlesvoix’s effort to create an inquiry-based approach even in her large lecture courses. See Claudia Petty’s article on Charlesvoix, Why Does the Wind Blow? Inquiry and Interactivity in Prof. Donna Charlevoix’s ATMOS 100. Great stuff, really. Lanny Arvan’s entries are good think-pieces. His July 12 entry, What do students actually know on entrance to college?, asks questions which bug me all the time, too. Using the for-profit education sector as a starting point, Arvan notes that students get admitted because of their ability to contribute to the organisation’s bottom line ($). But then he reflects that while it’s relatively easy to understand how ‘standards’ can be lowered in the for-profit sector, how exactly do we know that standards in the traditional not-for-profits organisations are being kept up? Arvan asks some very interesting questions that make him sound almost like …John Taylor Gatto (gosh!):

One metric, of course, is median S.A.T. scores. I’m no great fan of those tests, but given that they publish the scores, why not give the full distributions for enrolled students and not just median scores. I believe the median at Illinois that I’ve seen reported is 1240. But let’s say (and I am making this up) that 25% are at 100 points or higher. It sure would be nice to know if those students seem fundamentally different, in smarts or GPA or what not.

What about in [sic] student’s ability to make a public presentation in class (or even to ask a coherent and interesting question from their seat)? Do we now anything whatsoever about how students speak? A few years ago I learned that they don’t do interviews for most of the students who apply here. As a matter of scale, I can understand that. But if we want our students to be articulate upon graduation, do we have any clue where they are on that when they enter?


A lot of what is being preached by instructional technologists is group activity aimed at promoting collaboration and a sense of community. I think that is great for those students who are ready for it. But I have not seen anyone ask what it takes to be ready to participate in such activities. What about the speaking? What about the writing? What about the general sense of civility? And on our side of the equation, if a student is lacking in one or more of these areas what do we say? [More…]

Excellent questions indeed.

I really know nothing very much about technology, except for what I know the way magpies and crows know about the shiny things that attract them. (They know a fair bit, I guess, but not enough to put the shiny things together themselves, alas.) But I do know a fair bit about education, and what it’s like to teach — at many levels. I also think I really do know something about “educating for understanding” — and I’m not happy when I see a kind of technology-fetish burying the important matter of striving for understanding. There is plenty enough of that in the education and technology linkage. I can’t remember where exactly I came across Jim Farmer’s pdf presentation, Licenses, Features and the Open Source Community in Higher Education, based on Justin Tilton’s “Open Source in Government” work, but I did learn from that document that by 2004, the “e-learning turnover in the USA for 2003 was valued with 7 billion USD, an increase of more than 438% compared to 2001″… (this is based on a study by Gabriela Hoppe and Michael H. Breitner, 2004; a link here and here…). That’s what then also gave me pause when I came across Where have all the women gone? by Dori Smith of Backup Brain (whom I know through Shelley Powers of BurningBird, of course (where else would you go to meet the right people?). (You have to see also Dori’s Not just the girls from today…) Read the comments, too, they’re integral. What I’m really worried about, reading the figures put together by Hoppe & Breitner, and thinking about the female exodus from technology, is that education is going to be taken over by people who don’t have the kind of understanding that’s really necessary in education. God help us all if singleminded toy-boys (they’re worse than crows attracted to shiny things, I swear) take over the ark of teaching for understanding, and toss it overboard into the flood of business.

No, I don’t think that women have a “natural ability” for education or for that “nurturing thing” or whatever. No, I don’t think that men are bereft (see Lanny Arvan’s pointed questions, above). But I would hate to see bright people — men and women — get so discouraged by the tech climate that they leave it to One-Dimensionals who are programmed by market logic alone. Why? Because the latter will construct the tools used to teach our children in the next year, the next decade, the next age. And we need many dimensions, not just one.

I learned basic html so I could write this blog. I’d teach myself the code for Melete if that could help stem the tide of stupidity in education (and if whatever I developed could be viable and help pay some bills – ha). I hope smart, critical people who aren’t interested only in the IPO or in making out like bandits stay in technology, because for better or for worse, education and technology are inextricably linked now. We can’t abandon education.

As that pdf mentioned above put it on p.15: “Education is a distorted market,” perhaps because “Commercial firms must monetize services,” while education can’t do that — not always, not in good conscience.

Actually, let me quote that page in full, it’s a hoot — once you stop weeping over the “cheap” observation, that is:

Is higher education different?

• Bright and productive people are “cheap” (as compared to the market)

• Contributing people’s time is less difficult than approval for an equivalent amount of funds spent for supplies or services.

• Research staff can be assigned to “related” projects and remain “accountable.”

Education is a distorted market

Commercial firms must monetize services

Bright and productive people, unite. You have nothing to lose but your cheapishness.

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