Computational Technologies in Educational Ecosystems
This is a survey course designed to help participants think about how different technological designs fit effectively into a variety of learning contexts, where context refers to the location (in or out of school), local culture, learning goals, and organization of activity. Topics covered include: the history of technology in education, theoretical frameworks for supporting technology in educational contexts, intelligent tutors, computer simulations, augmented reality, games in learning, young children and embodiment, culturally relevant technology designs, and the digital divide.
The goals of this course are:
1. Provide students with a broad survey of various technologies that have been used in learning contexts
2. Provide students with important background knowledge about the role and state of technology in education
3. Help students to develop personally meaningful models of how technology can be implemented in educational contexts that are relevant to them
This course is organized around three key principles. The first is that students will benefit from applying the course principles and readings to a topic of personal interest to them. Weekly course assignments will therefore allow students to focus on topics that are directly relevant to their own agenda / topics of interest. Then, the class culminates in a personally relevant project that consists of applying the course readings to a topic of interest.
Second, and related, is the idea that students can develop a rich conceptual model grounded in course readings by reifying their conceptual model in the form of a sharable external representation. They then discuss their models with their peers, and iteratively refine their models in response to feedback, course readings, viewing their peers' models and ongoing reflection about their own model and how it shapes their thinking about technology in education. Students begin the course by creating a model (an in-class drawing) of what they believe are the important issues to consider when developing technology for use in educational contexts. Over the course of the semester, the students revise their model and share bi-weekly reflections about how the course readings have either influenced their models, are addressed by their current model, or discuss principles that may be obviated by their model. Student models are shared via a wiki page on the course Sakai site (Oncourse). Students have the option to use a Sakai blog, Sakai wiki, or external blog or website to share their model and reflections.
Finally, an important aspect of engaging in educational research or development is the ability to effectively communicate one's ideas to other stakeholders who may have very different background knowledge. To gain valuable practice in this kind of exercise, the students in this course will also participate in a "cross-class hub" hosted in Sakai. Students are given the opportunity to interact with the members of a different education course (one focused on educational theory) and to also answer questions that the students in the other course may have about how technology can support teaching and learning.
I was the primary developer of this course. However, I made use of several open-source projects in addition to Sakai in order to implement the technical aspects of this course. These included several Wordpress plugins which were all instrumental in the development of my professional website, components of which are also integrated into my Oncourse website (Oncourse is the Indiana University implementation of Sakai). Of particular import is the tweetblender plugin, which I used to aggregate my course-related tweets in a form that all students could view regardless of whether or not they are twitter users or officially following myself or the other course members. For more information on this plugin, developed by "kirilln" please see: http://twitter.com/tweetblender.
The technical development of this course would not have been possible without the use of existing tools from the open source community.
While this class is currently being implemented as a face-to-face class, it was also developed as part of an initiative to develop an online certificate program; the intention is to eventually offer one section of this course in an online format. This development was therefore supported in part by a grant co-authored with Daniel Hickey and Kylie Peppler, and generously funded by the Indiana University School of Education Initiative to Enhance Distance Education.
The theoretical framework that drives all of my course design and research is Activity Theory (e.g., Cole, 1996; Engestrom, 1990). Activity Theory focuses on the process through which individuals learn through social interaction. This leads to the appropriation of new social practices and psychological principles from the social milieu. To employ Activity Theory in this context, I determined the social practices that I want my students to be able to engage in at the culmination of the course. For this course, I believe that "knowing" about how technology might be employed in educational contexts requires not only being able to describe some seminal papers, but more importantly the ability to articulate and apply the ideas in those papers to novel problems in a critical manner. With this goal in mind, I designed the class Activity System with an eye toward developing complementary aspects of face-to-face in-class interactions and online interactions between weekly course sessions using Sakai.
As I worked to specify and support my desired course interactions, I also considered my prior experiences using Sakai to teach both an online course and a face-to-face course, my past experiences teaching this content, and what I knew about my desired and likely target audience
Given my theoretical framework and prior experience, I had two main goals in my Sakai development for this course. First, I wanted to provide several different opportunities for students to interact with me, their peers, and the content prior to weekly class sessions. These opportunities were intended to help them engage critically with the course readings, and provide me an opportunity to see their understanding prior to class so that I could adjust my class activities accordingly. I settled on using a combination of the Sakai wiki and blog. Students could post ideas about key concepts in a course "dictionary" and write bi-weekly reflections on the course readings, including individually developed models representing their current beliefs about the issues one needs to consider when using technology to support learning. The wiki and blog also provide the invaluable opportunity for students to respond to their peers' postings. Second I wanted to integrate these tools, course readings, assignment specifications, and other external materials (such as a course twitter feed) into one easy-to-use central location that was easy to access and familiar for students with previous Sakai experience.
With these goals in mind, I experimented with a practice Sakai site, often requesting suggestions from the local IT for how best to implement specific features. I also designed a homepage, nested within Sakai to bring all of the information, readings, assignments, and links together in one location. To do this, I developed custom html and css, seeking open source solutions for features that I could not easily and quickly implement. Finally, I sought feedback on design and implementation ideas from several of my colleagues who have also been teaching for several years and using the local implementation of Sakai to support their courses.
The main course page is a "units" page which shows the weekly topics and dates, readings, assignments, and other material in one table. This table provides an overview of the entire course, while also dynamically updating to highlight the current week and assignments. The majority of the information within the units page consists of links, so that students can easily navigate to the other aspects of the course or read details of the course assignments in popup windows.
The students spend the majority of their time in either the course dictionary or the course models page. The dictionary is a wiki that the students edit, adding terms from the course readings as well as their own definitions. The course models page is an index linking to the students' models. On alternate weeks the students either post a new model and reflection about the readings, or comment upon their peers models. The models page uses the wiki so that the students can update information about their models and links to them. Because this is a technology-focused course, I wanted to provide opportunities for students of various comfort levels and outside exposure to technology. Therefore, the students can use the models wiki either to link to a personally created wiki model page, to a Sakai blog page, or to an external blog site, so long as there is an option for their peers to provide comments. Students then note any updates on the models wiki page, making it easy for everyone in the course to see newly updated models. Model updates are due 2 days before class each week, giving students an opportunity to comment upon them, and me an opportunity to adjust that week's activities in response to the student ideas.
In addition, I also support conversations about course related materials using twitter, and post weekly blog updates with a visual response to the course readings (typically in cartoon form). Again, I wanted to support students of varying comfort levels. Therefore, I created a webpage on my blog that integrates all twitter posts with the course hash-tag into one page and embedded that within Sakai so that students who are not twitter users still have an opportunity to follow the conversation. Similarly, my blog updates are incorporated in the Sakai site and linked to from the units page. Finally, I have also created a Cross-Class Hub where students in this class can share ideas with students from another class I am teaching that covers learning theories--a topic of interest to students in both classes.
In the weekly course meetings I present brief targeted lectures intended to provide high-level background information on the week's topics, demonstrate relevant software exemplars from the course readings, and facilitate a variety of activities and course discussions intended to help the students engage more deeply in the course readings. I often integrate big ideas, debates, and misconceptions from the students' models into the design of these sessions.
Students have multiple opportunities to communicate with me and each other using either the Sakai tools (messaging, forums, wikis, comments, etc.) or outside tools including Twitter. In addition, to streamline the process, I have incorporated the twitter discussions into the Sakai site so that they are easily accessible to students who are not currently twitter members. A total of 70% of a student's grades are based on one or more of these communication formats: 20% is based on in-class participation and updating the wiki dictionary, 40% is based on the bi-weekly creation of models and reflection upon the models and the readings, and 10% is based on the upcoming cross-class collaboration assignment. Participation extends above and beyond these venues, however. I have not only seen ample evidence of the students extending their conversations beyond these into other venues such as twitter, I have also brought these conversations into our class discussions as relevant. The students appear to not only appreciate this, but to count on it, often asking questions in the forum of their choice prior to class (for some it is Sakai, for others it is twitter, etc.). I then take steps to ensure that all key course information is available to all of the students through the Sakai site so that no one is left out regardless of their technology of choice.
Moreover, this fluid and flexibile use of multiple technologies is not only generally valuable, but particularly relevant in a course about the role of technology in education. The ongoing class dependence on both Sakai and other technologies for out-of-class communication often leads to relevant conversations in class about how we are using technology in productive ways and how this relates to the theories and readings that we are covering.
All of the course requirements, goals, and roles were presented in-person in the first course, in the online syllabus hosted within Sakai, and in the course "units" page that visually presents all of the information in one location to help students easily navigate within the course as needed. Furthermore, when I presented the information in the face-to-face course, I did this using the Sakai site so that the students could see all of the information in the same form that they would then be asked to navigate on their own. Additional support materials are included in the course wikis, and are provided over email or during in-class discussions as the course progresses and as students' request it.
Each of the major course elements (e.g., the models index page) are also linked to from several locations within the Sakai site. The units page, wiki index, and a special link on the course navigation bar located within Sakai can be easily found by any student regardless of his or her navigation approach. Finally, in the course "units" page, key information is presented in html-based popup windows to ensure that students can read the necessary information without leaving the current page. This common interface design technique is often employed to help users engage with information without shifting their focus away from the current navigational context.
The course syllabus and assignments all clearly state the goals for the course and for each of the different elements or assignments within the course. I also make it a regular practice to articulate the goals of each assignment within the face-to-face course. Often, this includes a short brainstorming session with the students to develop the assignment rubric in a manner that satisfies my goals as well as theirs. This exercise is quite helpful in giving students a sense of ownership, a clear vision of what the assessment criteria are and how I am conceptualizing them. Furthermore, the students often suggest new and unique ways for us all to engage with the assignment!
In addition, the course met all 7 of the criteria for good practice in undergraduate education, criteria which are all quite relevant in a graduate level course:
1. The entire course is designed around supporting ongoing conversations between the students and me via several Sakai tools (messaging, wikis, and blogs), email, and twitter in addition to the face-to-face meetings.
2. The nature of the modeling project is such that in addition to multiple in-class formats, the students provide feedback to each other on a weekly basis outside of class. I also take steps to help encourage and model constructive feedback.
3. There is very little lecture in this course. The majority of it consists of rich conversations both online and in person.
4. Feedback on the majority of course issues is provided either in real-time, or within 24 hours. Furthermore, the students often provide feedback to each other in addition to the feedback that I provide.
5. The students' models and reflections are the ultimate proof that they have spent the time to engage deeply with the course readings prior to face-to-face course sessions. Feedback from students thus far has been that this interaction is not only productive but pushes them to use that time more effectively.
6. I have informed the students of the expectation and benefits of good performance, including weekly short-comments to let them know when I believe they could improve their performance. However, it has been my experience given the current course design, that the majority of the students hold themselves to even higher expectation than I do.
7. As mentioned above, I have provided students with a number of different alternatives to engaging in the course technologies. Some have opted to use the built-in Sakai tools, and I have taken the time to meet with at least one of them in person to help provide additional support. Other students who are more comfortable have made more extensive use of the technologies. This supportive environment has often led to the more novice students asking for and receiving guidance from the more expert students.
I have endeavored to design a clean and consistent user interface that mirrors the design elements present in Oncourse (the local Sakai implementation) wherever possible. All of the custom html pages in the site also use the same css formatting to ensure visual consistency. To further ensure a clean and usable interface, I have developed many of the features of the current course based on feedback and observations from previous classes. In addition, I have not only sought suggestions on the interface from several peers but also have made minor changes to the course when students noted a few elements that they found mildly confusing. After all, I believe it is important to adapt an interface to the local practices whenever possible, ensuring the best possible fit between the two.
There are several sources of learner support built into the course site, including multiple opportunities and venues for peer support. The local implementation of Sakai also includes robust documentation. However, I also provided a few opportunities for locally relevant wiki-based support documentation where it seemed most helpful. Finally, I was available daily over email or Sakai messaging, and regularly before and after class in addition to being able to schedule meetings with the students as needed. Finally, as noted above, many of the students opted to use Twitter to contact me, so I made sure to be available there on a daily basis as well.
There are several unique pedagogical features in this course: 1) the model-creation and reflection approach that I am taking, 2) the incorporation of multiple online interactive approaches within the Sakai site, and 3) the cross-class collaboration element.
With respect to the first, while it is not uncommon to ask students to reflect upon the readings or to create models, the combination of the two, using Sakai as a forum for students to share their ideas and responses, has proven to be incredibly productive. The most obvious evidence comes from student models themselves, which have improved dramatically over the course of the semester. Students constantly incorporate new ideas from the readings, class discussions, and their peers' comments. In one student's words: "I just wanted to let you know that having us blog and comment our way through this class is helping me engage with the reading much more effectively than perhaps any class I’ve ever taken. Admittedly (and naturally, I think) there are some articles that I gravitate towards and think about more, but overall I am reading with much more purpose. And I’m taking notes with a view toward participating in discussion as opposed to studying for a test." As a second student mentioned, "I think the reflections are really useful and I feel like they are helping me with the whole reading critically thing because I think about what I want to use in my reflections when I'm reading and it's also helped me make the connections between readings and other even other classes. So I just wanted to say thanks."
Second, I believe that I have been able to strike a productive balance between using the Sakai tools, incorporating other technologies, and giving students the option to use both. I've seen rich discussion and commenting across all of these spaces, and in several cases have even seen students extend conversations via their blogs and twitter to discussions with other students and professionals who are not enrolled in the class. As another student commented, "this assignment has emphasized the importance of considering audience. Some of my classmates worked within the blog feature of OnCourse, and others have used personal, public websites to present their work, and the decisions we've made about how and where to build our designs have led to conversations about the rhetoric of learning theory and educational policy. For me, what was a theoretical issue became a practical one..."
Finally, the cross-class hub is beginning to demonstrate the potential of linking the members of multiple classes into one larger community of academic discourse. The pay-off is that students are consistently taking their conversations beyond the classroom and exploring the course topics and ideas in an authentic manner. Or, in one student's words, "[Dr. Danish] has created hubs and assignments to support cross-class conversations, has used OnCourse to develop durable, enduring artifacts (like a crowd-sourced dictionary of relevant terms), and has embraced students' move toward public discourse for class assignments."