Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why Would We Need an LMS Anyway?

This is something that has been on my mind for a while. As more and more people announce the death of the learning management system in higher education and the design work on Sakai 3 moves along, I kinda have to agree in many ways. Here are some of my thoughts on this issue.

A Look Back In Time

As I look back at some of the primitive course management systems I have been exposed to as a student and at the beginning of my career, a couple of things strike me. First, those systems were affordable. You didn't have to cut a six-figure check to run these systems. Some of them were free, others were home-grown, and the commercial alternatives were relatively inexpensive. Developers kept a workstation under their desk to run the software. Back in those simpler days, an LMS was a novelty, something people were experimenting with, not unlike what we are doing now with mobile technologies or virtual worlds. People expected the LMS to fail at one point or another, and the few faculty pioneers planned accordingly, always keeping a plan B in their back pocket.

Another reason why they had some value was because of the absence of real good alternatives to publish to the web. The LMS became a central point to "dump" material to students, a remnant of the "Sage on the Stage" mentality combined with the Powerpoint frenzy of the late nineties (unfortunately, a lot of institutions are still fostering such an online learning environment today). Still, posting material to the web instead of using other alternatives represented a real revolution in knowledge distribution. Photocopies and email attachments could now be avoided, saving money and angry calls to the help center.

The stone age LMS also included some features like discussion boards, mailing lists, assignment dropboxes, and a grade book, tools that were not easily available outside of the LMS. The monolitic LMS included everything in one software package, all that was missing was the clear-wrapped box. Easy enough, its adoption slowly rose, as more institutions joined the recently coined "e-learning" bandwagon.

The Monolithic LMS, Part Deux

As more and more institutions got interested in using an LMS, once academic pilots started turning into big business. Smelling the money because of technology lock-down, commercial products like WebCT and Blackboard started increasing their licensing fees to their current level. At Delaware, our first WebCT license came with a bill of around $3,000 back in 2000. Today, you can now expect a six-figure bill for one of the most recent commercial LMS. We're talking about an increase between 50 and 100 times in 9 years, outrageously ahead of the inflation rate for the same period (roughly 25% - see Teaching with an LMS is now a core higher education activity, and no serious academic institution can really live without one.

What was the alternative? Starting an LMS from scratch? That required a lot of resources and a lot of time... Some institutions have gone down that road, and have been pretty successful. But then, as users demand more stuff to be included, bug fixing becomes the focus as feature creep starts to appear... And then how do you keep up with all these requests? Users see these things on other systems and sites that work so smoothly, yet your system looks like it's from the middle-age, just like in Eric Burke's cartoon!

Then came open-source. Noticing the success stories behind different open-source initiatives like Linux, Apache, and MySQL, higher education institutions started fiddling with Moodle and Sakai, but those system were considered for the longest time way too risky... What if there is a security breach and that our user data got exposed? No way, I'm sticking with Blackbox, ... I mean Blackboard! They know how to protect my data, they don't even show me how their system works, so how would a hacker know?

The End of the LMS (As We Know It)

As it is the case in many areas of life, we are now beginning a new cycle. A cycle of fragmentation. Instead of the classic Taylorism that created wealth for generations, we are now entering the era of on-demand, customized, buffet-style web publishing. As more and more sites, apps, widgets, and devices enter our everyday lives, we become exposed to new ways of interacting with information. And since academia is primarily an information industry, changes will become more noticeable.

Commercial LMSs are the new home-grown systems, without the control. As much as they would like to control, analyze, retain, track, and integrate everything, there is always a web startup that does it better for one part of the process. And guess what? These services are free or nearly free (fremium), as defined by Chris Anderson in his latest book (which I recommend by the way). How can you compete with free?

So, now that all the fun stuff in in the cloud, what's left of the LMS? It's still somewhat useful, right? Not everyone's an Edupunk yet, right?

All Boxed In

I had an interesting email exchange with an instructor about a month ago. He was asking me why he wasn't allowed to keep all the files for his course (including some huge screencasts exported from Keynote) IN his course site in Sakai. I answered that there was a storage limit set on each course site, and that his screencast could probably be hosted on our flash video streaming server or on YouTube, and linked to from his Sakai course. He came back with the following remark:

I tought of WebCT as a place where I stored a course. I guess I now have to change this vision with Sakai.

That made me think of how boxed in a lot of us still are when we think of the LMS. It should have never been that way, but this false perception is something that needs to be dissipated in order to really push the envelope and really leverage the use of technology for teaching and learning.

The Core LMS is Now a Layer...

I believe there are some basic features to the LMS that still have value. Indiana University's vision, as defined in an ECAR research paper, follows.

It is true that Web 2.0 is gaining significant attention for providing some of the major tools, including wikis and blogs, which encourage social networking and support collaborative learning. But Web 2.0 is not a substitute for the CMS. Online structured learning environments must be able to connect to student data, registrar information, scheduling, and other enterprise information systems. Itself an enterprise system, the CMS provides the framework on which to innovate; it offers cohesion to the flurry of innovations developing around Web 2.0 and the core institutional systems and data to which they must link.

I think the main point here is that stuff can be stored and worked on collaboratively anywhere in the cloud, but only in a structured environment can you automate processes and collect data that makes sense to higher education institutions (this is especially true when it comes down to student portfolios and institutional assessment of learning). That structured environment could also be outsourced to Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc., or hosted outside your institutional walled garden, following rSmart's or Moodlerooms' model. It all depends on your institution's policies and local regulations regarding student privacy. There is still a layer of protected data that needs to be controled internally, like student grades, exams, papers, and instructor feedback for instance. Automating processes and protecting data are not necessarely very high pedagogical goals that are likely to get educational technologists excited, but they are the bread and butter of higher education institutions at this point in time.

A side point to Indiana's message is innovation. As discussed earlier, I don't believe a lot of companies in the world have what it takes to keep ahead of the curve all the time when it comes to web development. Open source software offers the opportunity to experiment with innovation as fast as its community of users wants it to go.

The LMS, without being a one stop shop, is still a pretty decent gathering point, an aggregator of learning content and activities. Students and faculty only have one URL to remember, access is granted by the system automatically through a unique identifier. The ability to create learning objects and activities, and embed web pages, widgets, and rich media from all sorts of sources is going to become more and more important, as the LMS becomes the wrapper that gives a context to content, the guide on the side(bar).

To visualize the LMS as a layer, I doodled this during a presentation to some faculty members a couple of months ago:

The LMS as an Aggregator

LMS native tools are not perfect. They will never fully rival with Web 2.0 alternatives; they will always be a step behind. Yet, they might be good enough for the majority of instructors, who will prefer to keep everything in one place, sometimes simply because it's convenient. For those who prefer to be on the bleeding edge, the Web 2.0 is an incredible educational sandbox to experiment with.

So, what is your vision of the LMS of the future?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Information sur le déploiement de Sakai à UD en Français

La semaine dernière, j'ai eu le plasir de présenter quelques données sur notre déploiement de Sakai. En effet, j'ai été invité à discuter de ce sujet dans ma langue maternelle avec plusieurs membres de l'Université de Montréal. J'ai traduit un grand nombre de diapositives que vous retrouverez ci-dessous.

J'ai été heureux de constater à nouveau que nous nous posons tous les mêmes questions par rapport au choix d'un LMS. Un des problèmes majeurs est que nous regardons souvent cette technologie avec un oeil d'expert en technologies éducatives, alors que la majorité des enseignants ne désirent qu'un nombre limité de fonctionnalités.

N'hésitez pas à partager vos succès et frustrations dans votre quête du LMS!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Sakai@UD Deployment Update

As many of you probably know if you are ready this post, I am the Project Leader of our WebCT to Sakai migration at the University of Delaware. More that two years ago, before I even started working her at UD, the LMS selection process began with an attempt to get faculty involved with the decision making.

Below is a slidecast of my November 2, 2009 presentation to the Faculty Senate about our progress in migrating users from WebCT to Sakai. Some of you might be interested in some of the metrics that are included in this presentation to sell Sakai as a viable solution for higher education.

More information is available at the following links:

Members of the audience reacted very positively to the slide about the progression of the number of course sites using an LMS, and to the state of the LMS in peer institutions. Sakai has a lot of momentum at this point in time, and it's great to see all these top notch institutions getting onboard!

How is your LMS selection/migration going at your institution? Please leave a comment!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Citizen Journalism Follow-Up From Sakai Boston

For those who didn't know, I was involved with the organization of the 2009 Sakai Conference. I participated in the weekly conference call from the beginning. I had been to two Sakai conferences in the past, and I always learned a lot at them, and now wanted to get involved in some way.

Since the conference was in Boston, I thought that a lot of people from Delaware would be able to make it. After all, it was only a 6 hour drive... But then, a certain "economic meltdown" happened, and my colleagues ended up staying home. As the LMS Project Leader, I was the only one lucky enough to get my trip approved.

The Sakai community builds up a lot of energy during the now annual international conference, so I took upon myself to champion the idea (people on the weekly conference call could hardly stop me from yapping... sorry about that!) of getting as much information out of the conference to the rest of the community who could not make it, including my UD colleagues. It all started with a call for volunteer Citizen Journalists about a week before the conference (if you know nothing about citizen journalism, see this ELI 7 things you need to know file).

Conference Preparation: Building-Up Awareness

One aspect that needed some attention was building-up awareness about the use of social technologies during the conference. Like every decent conference, we needed an easy and short hashtag. #Sakai09 was selected and promoted, along with prefered social media sites and technologies. After debating what should be done, the following technologies were targeted for the conference:

  • Confluence: The Sakai community wiki space is a blessing the during the whole year, but seems to have a limited role to play during the conferences. Past conferences have shown us that when a lot of people try to use it at the same time, it tends to crash and leave us hanging, so we used it a lot before the conference to promote it, and used a lot of other sites during the conference to "spread the load".

  • Facebook, LinkedIn: Events were created on social and profesional networking sites to invite people to register for the conference.

  • Twitter: Since a lot of people in the Sakai community are tech-savvy and heavy Twitterers, we knew that Twitter would be a very efficient way to direct people's attention to interesting stuff in real time.

  • Youtube: The Mecca of free video could not be ignored. We created a channel called Sakaivideo where Citizen Journalists would upload short videos throughout and after the conference.

  • Slideshare: Slides as attachments on the Sakai Confluence wiki are nice, but it seems like they don't get enough attention. Slideshare is a premium free slide sharing service that let users tag, favorite, comment on, and embed slide deck, which was exactly what was needed to spread the knowledge a bit more. A slideshare event was also created to centralize all the slides in one place.

  • Vimeo: For longer videos, since they don't impose a lenght limit like Youtube.

  • Ustream: The Ustream channel was created in advance and linked from the social media page.

  • Yahoo!Pipes: I built a Pipe to gather stuff tagged with Sakai09 from different sources (Diigo, Delicious, Youtube, Flickr, etc.) and embedded the results on the home page of the conference Confluence page. This way, attendees could get a sense of live social presence. The pipe was also a great way to aggregate all these knowledge chunks from different sources in one comprehensive stream.

Short Videos

The biggest problem with conference videos in general is that they are usually too long. Another one is that the audio is not that great, and you lose a lot of questions from the audience most of the time. As one of my ex-colleague used to say: all bad movies are too long.

So instead of taking a capture everything approach, we decided to let Citizen Journalists decide on what to record, while trying to capture summaries of key sessions through one-on-one interviews. A lot of people signed-up, and Flip cameras were distributed to most of these people in order to gather short stories about the most interesting projects, opinions, visions, and people. A lot of folks also brought their own high-end video hardware and expertise, including Kim from UNC Chapel Hill (see the pic below).

Kim Interviews Conference Attendees

As of today (July 23, 2009), 40 short videos have been uploaded to the Youtube channel, some of which have been viewed more that 100 times. Below are two samples from these videos.

Longer videos were uploaded to Vimeo, which contains 7 videos, including the keynote address of the two winners on the Teaching With Sakai Innovation Award (TWSIA), Andrea Crampton and Edith Sheffer. Only the TWSIA winners and Vijay Kumar's keynote address were "professionally" recorded by the hotel crew (you be the judge of the quality), since we really wanted to make sure to capture those because of their usefulness to the teaching and learning community.

Andrea Crampton (CSU), First Place Winner 2009 TWSIA from sakaivideo on Vimeo.

Edith Sheffer (Stanford), Second Place Winner 2009 TWSIA from sakaivideo on Vimeo.

Financial facts: the Sakai Foundation spent around $600 on 3 Flip Ultra HD cameras, and around $5,000 on the hotel crew to record two sessions... You do the math.

Streaming Video

Without realizing the full extend of the workload involved, I volunteered to UStream and record some sessions I was to attend. Strong of the expertise of our Summer Faculty Institute experience with Alec Couros a couple of weeks prior, I decided to try to replicate UD's video guru Paul Rickards' on a shoestring budget, and without the help of a cameraman sidekick. My main concerns were capturing decent audio, connectivity, and power. Below is the diagram of what I envisioned as a one-man band streaming video kit.

Streaming Diagram

I ended bringing all that stuff to the conference.

Conference Devices

Conference Devices

Conference Devices

Conference Devices

Conference Devices

After testing out the external microphones and webcams, I realized during the pre-conference that the internal microphone on my MacBook Pro did a good enough job to avoid carrying the audio recorder with external microphones. Also, the wireless signal was strong enough in session rooms to allow me to avoid being hard-wired. Still, carrying all that stuff around was a challenge, especially since I needed to change rooms, boot-up, get set to stream and record, all of that without slowing down the pace of the conference.

When slides had been uploaded to Ustream prior to the presentation, I was able to switch from the webcams to my shared screen displaying the slides through a free software called CamTwist, which ended up as a way better streaming experience.

Ustreaming Process at the Sakai Conference

A lot of people at the conference and abroad were thrilled to see that some sessions were streamed, and thanked me profusely for doing this. Attendees also invited at home colleagues to follow the live stream, amplifying the reach of the stream.

Some key stats: more than 22 hours of live streaming, 266 unique viewers, 449 viewers, average of 7.6 viewers at any time, 173 viewer hours, and around 1,000 views of the recordings.

Sakai09 Ustream Stats

Remember the TWSIA videos? You can compare the quality with the Ustream of the same event.

Lessons Learned

Some lessons learned from this whole experience
  • Short videos created enough of a buzz to avoid recording every sessions.

  • Ustreaming equipment should be left in the rooms that are to be recorded. Moving all this equipement is too cumbersome for a single person.

  • Twitter is good for real time social buzz, but sucks at keeping a archive of an event. Search results on Twitter are purged too fast nowadays, Tweets from the conference are not even availble anymore, two weeks after the event. You need to copy the tweets somewhere to make live blogging efficient in the long run, or use a live-blogging tool like CoverItLive during the event.

  • When slides are shared in advance, the live streaming experience becomes so much better, because you can switch video sources from webcams to screen sharing, making sure the text and graphics are readable.

  • You can't do it alone. It takes a team effort to make something like this happen. More than ten official Citizen Journalists were a part of this initiative, and I personally want to thank them for their support and enthusiasm. See you all next year!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Wikis, Revisited

More than a year ago, I put the final touch on a report called Wikis in Higher Education, an assignment I worked on for some time from when I started working for the University of Delaware and May 2008. Since the release of the report, there has been some success stories using the wiki tool in Sakai at UD. The latest success story comes from Persephone Braham, an Assistant Professor in the Foreign Languages and Literatures Department.

Collaborative Wiki Project for Latin American Cultures - Persephone Braham from Mathieu Plourde on Vimeo.

But at the pace that the web technologies are evolving nowadays, the Sakai Wiki tool is becoming weaker every day, as wiki-like behaviors are becoming a part of other web 2.0 technologies. Not that it's a bad thing, but having access to a protected, institutionally-supported wiki space has undeniable value in higher education.

Below are some of the missing features that would need to be included in Sakai in order to make its wiki tool competitive again. Some of these features will become available in Sakai in the near future, but I found relevant to list them here anyway.

1. Rich Text Editor

This feature has been asked for years, yet it is not implemented. Attempts have been made to integrate the FCK Editor with the wiki tool, but results have been dissapointing. The biggest issue is related to the fact that there are too many features in the FCK Editor that are not supported in the wiki markup language, like resizing a picture or formatting a table. Other Web 2.0 wiki products like Wikispaces have been using a rich text environment from the get-go, and even rarely show the wiki markup language to the user.

2. Embedding

Users create content outside of Sakai, and they would like to be able to embed objects (videos, sounds, pictures, etc.) inside the page as they create content. Again, this feature is available on all blog engines and on most wiki engines as well.

3. Table Formating

The default "first line is a header with a yellow background" doesn't cut it anymore. Sometimes, the content needs to be presented differently, and users have been complaining about this lack of flexibility. Most wiki engines support a way to turn a cell into a table header. Confluence does it with a double pipe ( || ), Wikidot with a tilde after a pipe ( |~ ).

4. Page and Comment Deletion

It is a little ridiculous to not be able to delete a page or a comment. The workaround is definitely weird. The fact that a page cannot be deleted does not promote tidyness, a basic wiki behavior that should be engrained in user's minds.

5. Group Awareness

I have been asked over and over again if wiki spaces could be created for specific groups in Sakai. Faculty want to assign spaces and change permissions to only allow certain subsets of users access to sections or pages to read or edit.

6. Listing of User Edits

Although highly inefective and time consuming (and personally discouraged as often as possible by yours truly), tracking user edits is a feature that faculty members are requesting. The idea would be to be able to seach for a user and see a list of all the edits that user has done in a specific site. Some faculty members believe that exposing that data can help them assign a participation grade.

7. Editing In Place

This one is a little far-fetched, but it is a behavior we see more and more often online. The idea that whenever a users hovers an editable part of the text and clicks it to start editing is definitely a part of the user experience expectations.

An Emerging Dilemma in the Sakai Community

Now that I have exposed some of the feature requests I'd like to see in the Sakai wiki, the problem comes back to this: How much effort is the community willing to demonstrate in fixing Sakai 2.x vs. developing Sakai 3? Sakai 2.x. is going to be around for at least another year before a stable release of Sakai 3 is available. Are we willing to put our current LMS on ice for a whole year, or are we going to make it work better right now?

I am not sure what the answer to this question is, but I would sure like to hear your opinion on this issue.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Update on Sakai 3: Everything is Content

There has been a lot of speculation on what Sakai 3 will be and how it will dramatically change user experience. There is most definitely a paradigm shift between Sakai 2 and 3. Will this new way to interact with an LMS suit the needs of educators worldwide? You be the judge.

I made a short presentation (12 minutes) to the members of our LMS Committee on June 16, 2009. My slides are available on Slideshare. (Disclaimer: I based parts of my material on Michael Korcuska's Sakai 3 presentation)

If you are looking for a more detailed tour, below is a screencast recorded in early June 2009. Michael Korcuska explains the big concepts that are guiding the development process of Sakai 3.

Since Sakai 3 is still in its early development, please consider getting involved with the community! Use cases and feedback are as important as the code itself, so whatever talent or time you have to devote is greatly needed and appreciated. You can try an alpha version at

Do you think that everything should be content and workflows? Do you believe this is something educators will embrace?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Googles, Tweets, and Pods: Social Media and the Millennial Learning

I finally completed the 4th part of the presentation Chris Penna, Dawn Fallik, and I gave at the Lilly-East conference back in April 2009. Our topic revolved around using web 2.0 tools in the classroom. We used the Student Multimedia Design Center at the University of Delaware to make the presentation more of a workshop.

We created a Google Doc with links to all of our presentation material.

Lilly-East 2009

Part 1 is the introduction and a quick review of the use of Twitter in the classroom.

Lilly-East 2009 - Googles, Tweets, and Pods: Social Media and the Millennial Learning - Part 1 - Mathieu Plourde from Mathieu Plourde on Vimeo.

In part 2, Dawn Fallik explains how she gets her students to create podcasts through their cellphones.

Lilly-East 2009 - Googles, Tweets, and Pods: Social Media and the Millennial Learning - Part 2 - Dawn Fallik from Mathieu Plourde on Vimeo.

Chris Penna explains his use of Google Docs to stimulate collaborative writing in his class in part 3.

Lilly-East 2009 - Googles, Tweets, and Pods: Social Media and the Millennial Learning - Part 3 - Chris Penna from Mathieu Plourde on Vimeo.

I created the part 4 after the event since we ran short on time (we spent too much time getting people started using the tools). As the Sakai Project Leader, I had to shamelessly plug my LMS in there, of course ;-)

I think Dawn and Chris did an excellent job at explaining the value of using web 2.0 tools in for their courses. If you have encountered faculty practices that are worth replicating (the new term for "best practices"), please add URLs to the comments below!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Social Media: What's In It For Me?

I have just completed something I should have done a long time ago... I have created a slidecast of a presentation I gave to the CHEP teaching with technology community of practice back in March 2009.

It's a little long (30 minutes), but it explain the process I have been through and the benefits of constructing a personal learning network (PLN). I hope my story will convince other people to give it a try.

One of the reason why I publish this now is because of Alec Couros' keynote address we had last week at the Summer Faculty Institute. He did a splendid job at exposing what a connected teacher should now be. The video of his presentation is embedded below.

Please share your personal learning network stories in the comments, because the more you share, the more you get back!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Challenging the LMS Model

I had the chance to catch a glimpse of Jim Groom's session at CUNY a couple of weeks ago on UStream, but then I saw this video on the Chronicle's site about Jim's view of the future of learning. I thought that his point of view, though extreme, has to be considered when thinking about Sakai, and the struggle between internal support and outsourcing (especially when it come to data ownership and FERPA).

Do you agree with Jim's point of view? Which functions should be supported by institutions, and which ones can be outsourced or left to users to decide?

UPDATE: You can also watch Jim's whole presentation at CUNY WordCamp on UStream.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

2009 Sakai Fellows

I'm so thrilled to have been selected as one of six 2009 Sakai Fellows! It's always nice to get some peer recognition of your hard work (although I could not have done it without the support of the extended LMS support team at UD--Janet, Karen, Nancy, John, Becky, Sandy, Debra, Ann, and many more staff in IT--, without whom I could have never devoted a part of my time to the community). But at the same time, everything I did for the Sakai community, I did for me! Let me explain...

As the LMS Project Leader at the University of Delaware, it is my job to make sure users are happy with our learning management system and that we stay on track with our migration from WebCT 4.1. The more I stay connected and help the Sakai community achieve its goals, the more I get back and make my job easier, as I am exposed to kick-a** practices deployed in peer institutions, and community-contributed patches that fix our local bugs (I send those the John Hall, and he does his magic). The technology must become so easy and obvious that it becomes transparent, just like that Referee that no one talks about, simply because he has done his job well. My overall goal is to get all the technical glitches out of the way to focus on what really turns me on: helping students get a better learning experience through the use of technology.

Beyond being incredibly selfish, I'm also pretty lazy. To stay organized and retrieve all the knowledge I have been exposed to, I leave traces everywhere on the web. It's so much easier to leave everything available that that's where I keep most of my stuff: in public bookmarks, videos, slides, pictures, tweets, etc. I don't even bother trying to hide them in closed systems or copyrighting them. That would involve tracking who has breached the garden walls, and who has used my work for their own profit without attributing it back, and I have better things to do with my time, like sleeping and watching hockey on TV. If you find ANYTHING I have left hanging on the web that has any value to you, help yourself!

This ties in nicely with a philosophy of the web I would like faculty members to embrace: Don't hide all of your content in your LMS. It goes against all business sense to share everything you do, to expose your value to the world, but that's what makes the Sakai community and open source projects so valuable. Like with most social media platforms out there, you get what you give. The education community in general has a lot to offer, and the Sakai community is a prime context to connect with smart fellow educators from all over the world. As brilliantly exposed by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody, crowds are always smarter that any one individual.

For the next year, I'll pay even more attention at reflecting on my experiences with the Sakai community. I'll try to blog more often to share nuggets of knowledge I find important and that will hopefully be useful to others too. An LMS is the most widely used technology on campus that can support teaching and learning innovation, and I'll continue to try to find ways to spread best practices and preach for openness.

A Praise for Fellow Fellows

Jan Smith has done so much to make electronic portfolios usable by getting involved in the OSP community, consulting and training people from all over the world. And then here comes the Coding Masters from across the pond, names you see all over the place on Confluence and Jira. Ian, Nico, and all the CARET folks have done so much for this Sakai 3 initiative, making it almost a reality and making it so much easier to sell the idea. Steve's relentless efforts in answering questions on the mailing list make you wonder how he gets anything done during his day job. The same can be said of Jean-François, rien n'échappe à son oeil de lynx ;-) Chapeau, cousin!

I am very honored to be in such a good company. I guess I got lucky, and not a lot of people got nominated or something :-)

To make things a little more interesting, I challenge my fellow Fellows to blog at least once a month on a Sakai-related topic, starting in June 2009. Let's spread the news that there is an alternative to "Dark Angel" out there, and that it's called Sakai! In addition, it will make your end of term report easier to write.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Tagging in the Material World: A (Mitigated) Success Story

It seems to me that for the last two years or so, a lot of what I do on a daily basis is tagging stuff. All sorts of stuff, like bookmarks, wiki pages, blog posts, videos, etc. It seems to me that it really makes my digital life more efficient, more enjoyable, and it makes my stuff easily findable.

The idea of adding keywords to information is nothing new. All research papers have had keywords for a while. Tags are also not new; we all have tags on our clothes to indicate how to take care of them, nutrition information is on almost all food products, street signs indicating civic numbers range (not in Delaware, but elsewhere) and price tags help us make buying decisions.

I stumbled upon the concept of tagging people from Cole Camplese and Allan Gyorke, from Penn State University. These two links show how they implemented the tagging idea to people attending a learning design workshop:

Tagging Participants at the Winter Faculty Institute

Organized by IT-User Services, the Winter Faculty Institute Kick-off Event at the University of Delaware (UD) is a conference day targeted at faculty members at UD. In the past, it has mostly been a passive half-day of presentations, including faculty showcases of teaching and learning innovations and a keynote speaker. I was put in charge of the 2009 edition and wanted to shake off the format a bit, with the intention of getting attendees to be active participants. That's why we added a half day of actitities durring the afternoon, starting with a technology-enhanced poster session.

The full agenda, links to videos, and pictures are all linked from the event page:

To stimulate conversation and get people thinking about educational technologies, we gave each participants a set of stickers representing different topics, technologies, interests, etc., along with a sheet of instruction with their nametag.

The stickers we home made, using Avery sticker sheets (model 5167), a color printer, and a paper cutter. We could do four sets of tags per sheet, so the whole process was not expensive at all.

UD-WFI Tagging Stickers

UD-WFI Tagging Stickers

The sheet of instructions was only there to provide an overview of what was expected of the participants, and also to give them an idea of some the concepts they might have not been exposed to yet.

UD-WFI Tagging Stickers - Instructions

UD-WFI Tagging Stickers

The nametag was designed to let people tag the tools, technologies, or concepts they already used (on the left), and the ones they were curious about (on the right). You could see the personality of some of the attendees shine through their nametags. Some were really clean and had just a couple of stickers on them, while others were completely filled up with stickers going in every direction. Below is a picture of mine.

UD-WFI Tagging Stickers - Nametag

We also used the tags on the posters, so that people could select the topics they were more interested in at a glance.

UD-WFI 1-6-2009 Sharon Watson

Before lunchtime, we collected the remaining stickers to count the missing ones. We ended up selecting two of the breakout discussion topics through that process. Even though the two selected topics were obviously popular, they did not attract as many people as expected, since there were already 5 other topics that were pre-selected, including a discussion around our brand new Sakai Learning Management System.

UD-WFI 1-6-2009 Katie and Sandy counting the missing tags

Results From the Evaluation Form

After the WFI was over, we sent out an online evaluation form to gather some feedback about the day-long event. As promised to Cole and Allan, I included two questions about the tagging activity. 36 participants out of 120 attendees, mostly faculty members at UD, answered. Here are the results:

Question 14: Did you find the stickers (tags on your name tag) useful to stimulate conversation with your peers?

UD-WFI Tagging Stickers - Survey Results

A lot of people did not find the stickers useful to stimulate conversation... I was a bit taken aback by this at first, but at the same time, I designed the question to address this specific aspect of "conversation starter".

Question 15: Comments and suggestions on the use of stickers.

I did not copy every comment here, since those below are representative of the overall feeling about this activity. A lot of comments also gravitated around the fact that they were fun.

Here are some positive comments and suggestions that came up:

The stickers [...] made me think about my own use of technology. I liked them, but I can't say they were very useful.

It was interesting because it made me realize how many technologies I'm already using/exploring. And it alerted me to some I know nothing about.

It could be used as an icebreaker activity... Find a person who uses the tool that you want to learn about and ask them a question.

Here are some issues that were written down in this field:

There really isn't much time to talk to peers, unless you'd do an exercise to do this (or build more time in).

The stickers were too small, it was hard to read the titles.

There were too many stickers on most nametags; perhaps limiting people to a small maximum (3-5) each for "use" and "interested in" would make the stickers more useful.

I did not make a concerted effort to look at other's stickers.

I would of liked to have learned more about many of them or how they might be used in education. . . Maybe a website or handout with some information would be helpful.

Lessons Learned

Now that this activity is a thing of the past, here are some lessons I have learned:

  • A day-long event might not be enough to really leverage a people-tagging activity. Our Summer Faculty Institute, where participants are engaged for a whole week, might be a better context for this.
  • Make sure your stickers are big enough. People might have a harder time selecting their stickers because of the limited space on their nametag, but it might achieve the goal of getting people to discuss better.
  • If you can build an activity, like that ice-breaker idea that was suggested in the comments, it should make the process more efficient.
  • Attendees like it when conference people do a follow-up on key questions that were raised during an event. I'll try to aggregate other results and lessons learned, modify some of our support material and strategies, and post the information to them.

Have you ever experienced a conference or organized an event where people tagged themselves or stuff around them? Do you have stories to share about this?

Monday, January 26, 2009

The 3 Ws of Sakai 3

I have now been involved with the Sakai community for over a year. In retrospect, I feel like a lot of good things are about to emerge from the work of this one-of-a-kind crowd. The latest and most active initiative, Sakai 3, is, in my opinion, very promising.

This blog post is somewhat a summary of my understanding of what Sakai 3 is all about, from a user point of view. I hope it can become a starting point for current community members who might still see Sakai 3 as a blurry long term vision, and maybe even draw more people’s attention to Sakai as a valid alternative to commercial learning management systems like Blackboard.

This post is based on my experience at the Authoring Summit and with the Content Authoring Initiative, my implication with the Teaching and Learning Group of the Sakai community, my understanding of the discussions happening on the different mailing lists, Nathan Pearson’s mockups for the Sakai UX initiative, the awesome job done by the Cambridge folks on the 3akai pilot site, and Michael’s excellent document about the vision behind the Sakai 3 initiative.

Looking at what Sakai 3 will be all about, here are some of the most relevant features of this new approach to content authoring (the ability to create web content online).

1. Sakai 3 is Wizardly

To become foolproof, Sakai will become better at offering the most direct path to content creation through wizards. These online sidekicks will provide guidance during the content creation process to help users make the right decisions, or guide them to the most common ones. Even though most of the design process will be wizard-driven, advanced users will still have the required flexibility to bend Sakai to their will through various options.

2. Sakai 3 is Widgety

The addition of a new page type (dashboard) will create a new way of looking at content: through widgets. These widgets will give a glimpse at all the dynamic content available in a site or outside Sakai on the open web. In addition to this, Sakai will break out of its tool silos to help users link directly to what has been referred to as “entities”, which are linkable chunks of information or activities, like a quiz, a forum post, an assignment, etc. Widgets will be able to provide a summary of an entity, a digest of the activity in an entity, or event a fully working entity embedded in a web page (like a chat room embedded under an article to be discussed, for instance). A list of entities is available here.

3. Sakai 3 is Wiki-like

Just like in a wiki, all edits will be archived, preserving the history of any authored page. It will use a powerful WYSIWYG editor to avoid the tedious learning of a custom wiki markup language. Document authoring will have a clear word processing look and feel, but will add a very strong collaboration opportunity that is not readily available in a client-side word processor. Page creation and linking will also be automated to make the site creation as seamless and transparent as possible.

I have presented Sakai 3 to our University of Delaware’s Learning Management System Committee in January. Below are the slides I used.

Beyond Sakai 2.6
View more presentations or upload your own. (tags: opensource lms)

Most faculty members were excited about the vision of Sakai 3. They felt like they could really use a flexible yet simple environment to create their web content.

You are more than welcome to use anything I have put up here, remix it, discuss it, to make it better. Does this vision of Sakai reflect what your institution and your users are looking for? What’s missing?

Disclaimer and Copyright

The ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are mine, and do not necessarely reflect my employer's point of view.

Creative Commons License
This work by Mathieu Plourde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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