Active Learning at Wikiversity

March 15, 2010
Thinking = Trolling

Wikiversity Learning Project

How Wikipedia defines the scope of the Wikiversity project.

Image credits. Statue of Liberty by William Warby and Jumping Woman Sculpture by Harold W. Olsen. CC-BY-SA

Related reading.

Tools for social learners

March 4, 2010

Ross Dawson's Social Media Strategy Framework

In my last few blog posts I’ve been making mention of the need to tweak online social networking tools so as to better support learning. Learners need to be empowered to ask questions and ask for help.

“The easier the tools make it for people to tell us what they need, the easier and more enjoyable it is to be genuinely helpful. The technology and culture of social learning can create an environment where you are enthusiastically supported, where your sense of wonder returns and creativity blossoms — where people thrive.” (source)

Sources and Citations

March 3, 2010


In my previous blog post I started making the distinction between software features that are used to
1) drive webpage clicks and generate ad revenue
2) features that support online social learning.
My first example was the “like” buttons that are found at many social networking sites. Learners need the support of other types of buttons such as “I’m confused”.

A source of frustration for online learners is that so much content on social networks if not sourced. This is true of all types of content, but it can be illustrated with images. The image shown here was found on this webpage. What is the source of this image?

The webpage that displayed the image says “photographs of Mars”. Here are some of the comments from frustrated web surfers of that webpage:

    “Is that first picture actually a photograph?”
    “What is the source of the first image?”
    “I would love to see some proof that these are from Mars, a source or similar”
    “They should have a caption of which spacecraft took these and where on Mars they are. I wonder where you can go to find the original source.”
    “source of this should be praised”

The source of anything should be cited and doing so would facilitate praise for the creator and aid online learners. I’d like to see a code of ethics for social networking websites. Any website that allows people to upload content should have a policy that encourages the citation of sources for content. For websites that allow the posting of content, it would be trivial to add input fields for use in citation of sources. It would also be useful to have buttons that allow readers to flag content as unsourced.

Social Networking Sites as Silos

March 2, 2010
Learn button

Learn Buttons

I previously blogged about the distinction between open-to-all learning communities and restricted access communities. Beyond limits on participation, most software-based communities have a problem with the free flow of information between communities.

One of the popular tools for helping to prevent online communities from being information silos has been content syndication. The first “feed reader” that I used was Bloglines. Many social networking sites allow participants to aggregate feeds and share those aggregates with other participants. One of these that I recently started experimenting with is Tumblr. There now exists a confusing collection of makeshift solutions to the problem of sharing information and social contacts between online communities. Can there be widely-adopted open standards for social networking?

One attempt to create such standards is the DiSo project. Look at the slogans for the DiSo (dee soh) project (“creation of open, non-proprietary and interoperable building blocks for the decentralized social web”):

  • Open, Distributed, Social.
  • Silo free living.
  • Information, Identity, and Interaction.
  • I hope that a coherent set of software tools will become available for helping us organize our online social networking. There seems to be a large gap between the needs of online learners and the desire of internet social networking companies to make a profit. Even non-profit organizations that are dedicated to online education struggle to facilitate the social aspects of learning. It will be interesting to see how online social learning networks continue to develop. I suppose things were just as confused when the first bricks-and-mortar schools were created. Most building were used for other things besides facilitating learning. With time, people figured out how to make specialized buildings that were well-suited for learning. At this time, most social networking sites are very much oriented around entertainment and commerce.

    If we are going to have efficient social networking tools for learning we need more than “like” buttons. In particular, I want something along the lines of a “I don’t understand X” button. That would be the foundation for for getting help for navigating a learning path through a collection of linked online communities.

    Emergence of what?

    March 1, 2010

    "Your social dynamics suck."

    “although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not” – Isaac Asimov

    In my last blog post I mentioned SpaceCollective as a learning community that did not adopt the “open to all” community structure that has been adopted by other learning communities such as Wikiversity. In Fiction and Learning, I mentioned Isaac Asimov’s imagined planet of the future, Solaria, where advanced technology and a global communications system did not result in people cooperating with others, rather, each individual pursued their individual creative endeavor. I asked, “Will the internet bring humanity together or will we all self-segregate into warring internet tribes?”

    In an essay called The Natural Asymmetry of Infocologies, there is discussion of the idea that within our expanding internet-driven infosphere the relationships between individual learners, “are fundamentally and increasingly becoming more and more asymmetrical.” These “asymmetries” among social learners take many forms including the fundamental fact that, “not all aspects of my infocology are of relevance and of interest to another mind”.

    Here is an analogy for the natural asymmetries of social interactions in the infosphere: Several tens of thousands of years ago modern humans spread outward from Africa. Human languages and other cultural features diverged and we are still reaping the “rewards” of cultural incompatibility and tribal warfare.

    In this analogy, I’m comparing the spread of human cultural groups over the surface of our planet to the proliferation of divergent information ecologies across the infosphere. My intuition suggests that the infosphere is vastly wider than the surface of Earth. The question becomes, will we find social networking tools that keep us all together as collaborators within the infosphere or will the distances between us grow, resulting in a new era of mutually incomprehensible tribes?

    I’m not happy with the idea that, with time, the infosphere will spontaneously develop the technologies that are needed to keep us unified. It seems a leap of faith to say, “the optimal distance is an emergent property of innovative infocologies“. Faith in emergence of a happy outcome sounds like saying we could have prevented tribal warfare if our ancestors had better used smoke signal technology to communicate about their common interests.

    Clubs and Scale

    February 26, 2010

    Chess Club

    In my last blog post I made a distinction between specialty learning communities and Wikiversity. Wikiversity uses the same community strategy as Wikipedia: everyone is invited to participate. At Wikiversity, the fundamental unit of social learning is the “learning project” and participants (editors) are free to create and participate in learning projects for any topic.

    In contrast to the “open to all” community structure of Wikiversity, many online learning communities have a narrow focus and some are like learning clubs where you need to either be invited or pay for your chance to participate. For example, participation at SpaceCollective requires an invitation and some of the projects are not even open to all SpaceCollective members.

    When a community of internet users forms and begins to explore shared learning goals and common interests, what are the natural limits to the size of the community? Does it make sense to impose artificial restrictions on participation or should our software tools allow for flexible modification of community structure according to the whims of each participant? Right now, the internet is being populated by many different types of learning communities. Since there is variation in learning styles and learning goals, I do not expect there to be a single “best” format for online learning communities. It will be interesting to watch and observe the “survival of the fittest”…which tools for building online learning communities will survive and which ones will fade away?

    Screenshot of the projects page for SpaceCollective:


    Learning projects at SpaceCollective.

    Upper Image. Chess Club by AskJoanne

    Online social networks for learners

    February 26, 2010

    Learn by doing.

    In my last blog post I used a few of the major social networking websites as examples for the “state of the art” in social networking. In this post, I want to review some examples of social networking tools that have been used specifically for education.

    The major social networking websites are for-profit and in my experience they are heavily slanted towards entertainment and advertising. Elgg social networking software is open source and has been used by educators to create social networks for learners. For example, Eduspaces is a learning-oriented social network powered by the Elgg software and one of the content sharing features is blogging by members of the social network.

    An online learning-oriented community that I have personally experimented with is Wikiversity. Wikiversity is powered by the open source MediaWiki software platform that powers Wikipedia. The basic content format is the wiki page, a webpage that can be edited by anyone.

    Wikiversity traffic.

    Based on Alexa statistics (see the graph, above), Wikiversity gets a significant amount of traffic because of its association with Wikipedia. Many online educational sites are niche communities and seldom grow beyond a limited size. Like Wikipedia, Wikiversity aims to be comprehensive in its approach to providing online learning resources. Unlike Wikipedia which is oriented towards providing printed documents to readers, Wikiversity aims to functioning as an online destination for learners where they can participate in a community where “learn by doing” (mostly “learn by webpage editing”) projects provide “hands on” learning opportunities.

    Many computer-facilitated learning communities are closed and intended to serve one particular bricks and mortar educational institution. It remains to be seen to what extent Asimov’s dream of making all the world’s knowledge available via computer-mediated access can become a reality. Will our cultural momentum keep bricks and mortar educational institutions in control of some types of educational resources or will a new ethic come to dominate by which everything will be freely available by way of the internet to every learning of the world?

    Image. Learning by Doing by Brian C. Smith

    Social networking and social learning

    February 24, 2010

    In my last blog post I completed my review of the internet as a learning prosthetic, a collection of learning resources and tools that has the power to satisfy Asimov’s dream of computer-assisted learning where, “everyone can have a teacher in the form of access to the gathered knowledge of the human species.” If the internet can function like a teacher or a personal tutor, then it will do so mostly through our social interactions with other people who we are linked to by way of the internet. We all collaborate via the internet so as to function as each other’s teachers.

    Social networking.

    If this model of online learning is valid, then a fundamentally important skill for each of us, as online learners, is using the available internet tools to build and maintain a personal social network that facilitates progress along our individual learning paths.  For convenience, I’m going to divide online social networking into two parts. “Part one” is exploration of the internet, finding useful learning tools and people with shared interests and making robust connections for communication with those people. “Part two” is using the resources that you have found on the internet. In this blog post I want to focus on the web 2.0 issue of what we put on the internet and how we share it with others.

    If we are all forming and using online learning communities then how do we efficiently share our knowledge with each other via the internet? We have many tools for sharing knowledge via the internet including email, discussion forums, chat systems, wiki websites and blogs. For this post I’m going to focus on ways to share knowledge by blogging.

    The Long Tail

    Technorati‘s “State of the Blogosphere 2009” provides some useful information about how people are using blogs. The sample of bloggers that is described in their annual report is skewed, but even in this biased sample most bloggers report that they blog for personal satisfaction. Use of blogging as a learning tool does not require any other motivation. Even when we are not trying to share knowledge with others it is useful to be reflective and write down what we are thinking about. By exposing your inner thoughts to the world you create opportunities for others to discover that they share your interests and that can lead to new online contacts and expansion of your social learning network.

    Can other people find your blog? Google has instructions for making sure that your blog can be found by way of their search engine.  Another way to allow people to discover your blog is to use microblogging websites such as Twitter. I routinely tweet about my blog posts and I usually mark those tweets with these tags: #fiction #SciFi #writing. I’ve been using to shorten the URLs of my blog posts and I can see a record of how many Twitter users have followed my tweets to view my blog posts (this averages about 7; thanks mom and dad!).

    I also send out notifications and links for my blog posts to my Facebook wall and my Gmail contacts via Buzz.

    facebook wall

    Facebook wall items, note the dates

    The image above shows part of my Facebook wall and you can see two different ways of publishing a blog post. In this case, the NetworkedBlogs Facebook application was significantly faster than the Blog/RSS option that was published by the method shown below:

    Facebook wall

    Sceenshot of my Facebook wall blog publishing settings.

    I feel like the NetworkedBlogs application has advantages, but when I tried to use it to publish this new blog (Collaborative Learning) to my Facebook wall, the application would not work with FireFox v3.6 for the mac. Unfortunately, that is a rather typical example of my usual experiences while trying to utilize existing social networking software. Everything is so new and changing so rapidly that there are significant ease-of-use issues that inhibit people from adopting these new learning technologies.

    These examples (above) show some of the current complexity that exists in sharing knowledge on the internet. It is fun and informative to search for blogs that are related to my personal interests, but I feel that the existing tools for sharing blog posts and searching for blog content are cumbersome and inefficient. I hope that in coming years the entire process of using internet tools such as blogs for networking and online social learning will be improved. Currently, it takes more work than it should to share our knowledge with others who share our interests and learning goals.

    Image. The image at the top of this post is “community building through social networking” by David King.

    Learn by doing

    February 23, 2010

    John Dewey

    John Dewey

    This post is a continuation of my review of “ubiquitous learning” and the idea that Asimov’s dream of computer-facilitated learning for all has been achieved by the ways that the internet has transformed learning. In my last blog post I discussed a critique of ubiquitous learning by Caroline Haythornthwaite in which she expressed concerns about online learning environments where peers and other learners become information sources and teachers.

    In Ubiquitous Learning: An Agenda for Educational Transformation by Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope they wrote: “we need to guard against any reduction of the richness of person-to-person or hands-on activity,” and they insist on the importance of keeping the needs of learners in control of the computing technology that learners use.

    Kalantzis and Cope list seven features of learning that takes place within a learning environment that is created by computing technology:

    1. collapse of the spatial and temporal boundaries that characterize traditional education institutions
    2. blurring distinctions between teachers and learners
    3. recognition of the diversity of learners who each are empowered to follow a unique learning path
    4. increasingly diverse, cheap and accessible modes of information transmission such as digital video
    5. a requirement that learners understand and can navigate the digital information environment
    6. knowing where to go for needed facts is more important than keeping those facts in the learner’s mind
    7. a need to create and utilize collaborative learning communities that empower learners

    That final emphasis on, “skills in building learning communities to ensure inclusivity and that all learners reach their potential,” seems like a keystone for the entire online learning phenomenon if it is truly a revolution in education. “The journey of ubiquitous learning is only just beginning. Along that journey we need to develop breakthrough practices and technologies that allow us to reconceive and rebuild the content, procedures and human relationships of teaching and learning.”

    If we conceptualize the “we” of that last statement to mean everyone who is engaged in creating the learning communities of the internet then we can ask: what form do those communities currently take and can we imagine improvements to our online learning communities?

    In Ubiquitous learning, ubiquitous computing, and lived experience by Bertram C. Bruce, he wrote about ubiquitous learning as what happens when we live our lives: “learning becomes part of doing”. Bruce argues that given the current ubiquity of computing technology, “Dewey’s dream of schooling that links the mind and the body, theory and action, or disciplines and ordinary experience seems more realizable than ever.”

    A. S. Neill

    A. S. Neill

    “We feel that ubiquitous computing technologies help us solve problems, create/access knowledge, and build community. We feel that they do it in a way that links work, family and friends, learning, and life. “

    I think the perspective provided by Bertram Bruce is useful. Rather than view online learning communities as “virtual communities” that are distinct and detached from the “real world” we can instead view online communities as technology-enabled extensions of our off-line lives. We learn by doing in all parts of our daily lives and internet technology simply allows us to continue our natural social learning in the virtual online world.

    Every time we upload internet content (email, blog post, a video, a comment in a discussion forum, etc) we can function in the role of “teacher”, every time we seek out and explore online resources we can function in the role of learner. The online people who we link ourselves to through networked blogs, shared wiki editing projects and all other social internet tools become parts of our personal learning community. Our success as an online learner depends on our skills in using internet technology to search out and connect with like-minded people who share our interests and who can propel us along our individual learning paths.

    Online learners will naturally gravitate towards online social interactions that facilitate learning. Are educators leading the way in the creation of new online learning tools or simply looking on in awe as the internet expands and learners adopt the tools that they find useful? Can we concisely describe and summarize the current best online learning tools or is the pace of change so rapid, the options and individual learning paths so diverse that codification is futile?

    Internet learning resources

    February 22, 2010

    learning cycle

    Learning cycle

    In my last blog post I mentioned the idea of a two-tiered educational system that includes both 1) conventional bricks-and-mortar education and 2) opportunity for individuals to pursue their personal learning goals by making use of learning resources that are available on the internet. If we accept this model then there should be an effort by educators to 1) teach students how to use the internet as a learning tool and 2) make sure that there are good learning resources on the internet.

    What is the “state of the art” in using the internet as a tool for learning? I want to approach answers to this question from the perspective provided by Isaac Asimov when he imagined learners using computing resources in order to pursue their personal learning goals. So, I am leaving behind the use of computing and internet resources to complete mundane assignments for formal courses. Let us imagine the internet from the perspective of a learner who is exploring a personal learning goal outside of the machinery of conventional educational institutions.

    Do our conventional educational institutions adequately prepare learners for the challenge of using the internet as a personal learning tool? What learning resources exist on the internet? How easy is it for learners to find and use those resources? To what extent do internet learning resources encourage the “Asimov ideal” of empowering individuals to discover and navigate their own learning paths? Does online learning work best as a personal search for useful learning resources and individualized consumption of information or as a creative social process of exploration and discovery within a community of like-minded learners?

    Ubiquitous Transformations

    In Ubiquitous Transformations by Caroline Haythornthwaite, she wrote about, “Internet-based trends that emphasize contribution, conversation, participation, and community,” and how those trends impact on learners. Is there much relevance to the über-scholar model of an Isaac Asimov, the lone learner who, feeding his own delight for knowledge, digests libraries full of information? Is that how most people are using the internet as a learning tool?

    The “Asimov model” for online learning strikes me as a “web version 1.0” computer-amplified version of the kind of individualized library-based learning that he loved and practiced. Dr. Haythornthwaite’s article looks to “web 2.0” technologies that make possible “ubiquitous learning”: “a continuous anytime, anywhere, anyone contribution and retrieval of learning materials on and through the Internet and its technologies, communities, niches and social spaces.” I don’t think Asimov or anyone who lived in the pre-internet era could have anticipated the emergent properties of social internet spaces and communities that allow or even emphasize participation and contribution rather than simple resource consumption.

    Exactly what kinds of learning resources exist on the internet and which ones  are most popular and useful? Are most online learning resources simply transferred to digital files from conventional formats (print) or are there truly revolutionary and transformative learning resources online that could never have existed in the pre-internet era?

    Dr. Haythornthwaite is concerned about, “the work that devolves to the learner for critical evaluation of retrieved information”: are independent learners adequately equipped to sift through the information (good and bad) that they can access on the internet? Asimov went through a long formal education process and obtained a PhD, he rightly enthused over a coming computer-powered infosphere where self-motivated learners could all be, as Haythornthwaite says, “his or her own teacher, journalist, librarian, writer, and publisher”. I suspect that Asimov could have thrived on web 2.0, but what fraction of online learners are able to pull this off?

    Asimov extolled the virtue of leaving behind a written record of your learning path. What are the online equivalents of this kind of virtue? To what extent is it the obligation of an online learner to leave behind a written trail that can aid the learning efforts of others? Are blogs and wikis and discussion forums the epitome of technology for sharing the learning paths that we each blaze? Are the available internet tools for documenting and evaluating learning resources and learning paths adequate or are we currently experiencing the infancy of online learning communities that will evolve new strategies for guiding learners towards the best learning resources? Is the functional unit of online learning the individual or the learning community? Are communities of online learners up to the task of sorting through good and bad sources of online information? Do we need to invent and form and participate in new kinds of online learning communities?

    An underlying theme in Dr. Haythornthwaite’s article is uneasiness. Trained experts who have historically served as the gate-keepers of libraries are now watching the internet transform the universe of learning paths. No longer do the learning paths we blaze need to follow the carefully curated gardens of schools and libraries. Are experts like Dr. Haythornthwaite reduced to the role of simple observers of an internet that is beyond control?

    More about participatory learning: Learning in the Age of Web 2.0 by Caroline Haythornthwaite.

    Next: Ubiquitous Learning: An Agenda for Educational Transformation by Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope.