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CT Visionary


Learning technology strategist Gary Brown charts the course from CLEs and ePortfolios, to PLEs and worldware.

Gary Brown

Brown: 'We've got to anticipate that Web 2.0 technologies will continue to evolve, change, and explode.'

As director of Washington State University's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, Gary Brown has stewarded the acceptance and growth of online learning, forged faculty development programs for early adopters and laggards alike, and struggled with the issues of assessment and accountability. But Brown sees more comprehensive changes ahead, especially as Web 2.0 technologies become widespread.

We're already well down the path to what some call a 'Web 2.0 world.' Is Web 2.0 having a transformative impact on higher education? We actually need to begin thinking about moving to the next generation of online learning in a Web 2.0 or Learning 2.0 world, in which a variety of tributaries are starting to come together: demographics, technology, accountability, and the general direction of education. But so far, instead of transforming the traditional classroom with online learning, we've merely transposed it to what is now the traditional course management system [CMS] or collaboration and learning environment [CLE].

Right now, we've only swapped the little red schoolhouses for the little online boxes we call course management systems. Students enroll, read posted information, and maybe listen to podcasts. A few of the more sophisticated students have some kind of electronic discussion with other students in the class, but the instructor is still at the center of the classroom. That model, pedagogically as well as for all kinds of practical purposes, is starting to lose its effectiveness.

Are changing student demographics contributing to a need to alter the model? When that model arose, we had a smaller percentage of the population in higher education, and people were committed to that kind of an approach. Now, a postsecondary education is increasingly perceived as a necessity for success in the world, and we've recognized generally that we need to have a college-educated population. Our workforce demands it.

Yet, full-time undergraduates are no longer the dominant population. Fifty percent of our college population goes to community colleges and must work, and continue to work. That population will be increasing. And about 50 percent of the college population is "swirling" now; students are taking courses from multiple colleges and universities-from at least two institutions, and sometimes more. What does that mean for the curricular coherence of programs built upon those little online boxes?

Then let's talk about how technology may or may not help: Can ePortfolios, for instance, handle the 'swirling' phenomenon? Higher ed professionals are beginning to recognize that ePortfolios may be more effective than standardized tests when it comes to documenting student learning. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has released a survey that brings that point home. Employers, too, are telling us, "We don't care about test scores. What we want is evidence that students have been involved in internships and service learning programs, and that they've done project work and have developed team, collaboration, communication, and leadership skills."

While ePortfolios are coming to the forefront as better than traditional tests for student documentation of learning, we know they are limited at this point because they still are institution-specific. Plus, as Trent Batson has noted [see "The ePortfolio Hijacked"], they tend to be implemented as institutional or program assessment management systems. In that vein, students typically are submitting their assignments over the course of the curriculum, just as they would submit their assignments in a physical drop box. A real student-centered model would put the authority, or ownership, of that ePortfolio in the hands of the students: They could share evidence of their learning for review with peers, and offer that evidence to instructors for grading and credentialing. But even then, if they try to do this with multiple institutions, they probably won't be able to meet all the different requirements of those various institutions, because they'll still be working with a single institutionally owned and supported ePortfolio, designed just for that institution.

So, can Web 2.0 help get us around the present limitations of ePortfolios? Web 2.0 provides an opportunity for students to mash up a variety of applications, the results of which they own themselves and can make available to anyone. To that end, we should start thinking not so much in terms of an ePortfolio but, instead, in terms of a personal learning environment (PLE).

And what we're trying to do here at WSU is bring outside employers into the process. Then we can have those employers validate that what we're doing aligns with what they find to be valuable. At the same time, we have the opportunity to demonstrate to employers who work with us the complexity of the work we do.

And what are some of the technologies that you're using now or might be using in the future with PLEs? Google Groups, Picasa, various types of social software; there are many examples. In general, it's all stuff that's out there in the world-worldware-and though nobody has said that these tools are designed specifically for the academy, there's no reason that, using these technologies, students can't share their work with their instructors.

Right now at WSU, one of the things we're developing in collaboration with Microsoft is a "harvesting" gradebook. So as an instructor in an environment like this, my gradebook for you as a student has links to all the different things that are required of you in order for me to credit you for completing the work in my class. But you may have worked up one of the assignments in Flickr, another in Google Groups, another in Picasa, and another in a wiki. Maybe you've also made some significant contributions to Wikipedia. So, I need a gradebook where I have the link you've provided me, rather than a copy of the work, and the gradebook should be capable of pulling in all of these various sources.

"Web 2.0 provides an opportunity for students to mash up a variety of applications, the results of which they own themselves and can make available to anyone. To that end, we should start thinking in terms of a personal learning environment."

Then too, there are repositories with hundreds of applications, some more stable than others, which can work in this type of environment. The app that we're investing in here at WSU-at least in terms of our time and energy, plus some licensing costs-is Microsoft SharePoint. It's an example of the type of worldware that students are likely to encounter in the "real world." Will they encounter Blackboard, or specific drill-and-practice software? Probably not, but they will encounter a spreadsheet- that's worldware, too, whether it's shareware or available from a vendor, as Excel is.

Some instructors are offering students a wide range of options in terms of which software tools they can choose to do their work. They may ask students to explain how they made their technology choices, or how their chosen technologies solved their problems and helped expand their notions of what technology could do. So, worldware is in itself a learning opportunity as we learn to use common applications and explore and repurpose other existing applications.

You say there are hundreds of worldware applications. How can you sustain stable programs with all of that? Is worldware just going to work itself out, somewhat like common office applications and e-mail have? It's going to be chaos. The only thing that is going to be consistent is change in and explosion of all these different technologies. But you ask if they will work themselves out, and the answer is yes. Still, each generation comes along with new expectations. Who could have guessed that text messaging would become so important? We've got to anticipate that these technologies will continue to evolve and change and explode. We're going to have to get used to the idea that we just have to accommodate that. And that's why I believe the killer application is going to be a "harvesting" gradebook.

How could the added dimension of working with employers scale across many different types of programs or disciplines? Career services organizations do a lot of this, and our business faculty also tend to have related projects through their professional and personal connections such as alumni. I believe we'll see alumni getting more involved, and career services units getting bigger. I also hope and expect to see increasing growth in community service learning-one of the hottest things happening in education right now. So, building outside relationships doesn't have to mean just working with employers, per se. For example, you could include real projects in the community, which is something the community and employers increasingly appreciate.

These types of programs will be incorporating all kinds of permutations, to some extent based on the disciplines. An issue will be finding faculty with the imagination to integrate these options into their teaching and learning, and an even more difficult issue will be credentialing that kind of work. What's more, if students can demonstrate work they've done at different institutions-even if they haven't received degrees-at what point will we find that employers don't really care about the degrees?

Employers then will be looking simply at whether the individual can do the work. A large part of what has gone on in the past is that a college degree has meant that a person can persist and persevere. Yet, about 70 percent of students do not secure jobs directly aligned with their majors. So there's an interesting set of issues that will affect the value of a degree. And as the secret gets out of the bag that job seekers don't need a degree as much as they need to demonstrate the work they are capable of doing, we'll see different kinds of models popping up.

"If students can demonstrate work they've done at different institutions-even if they haven't received degrees-at what point will we find that employers don't really care about the degrees?"

But certainly this is not simply about commerce; about companies harvesting a new crop of employees. Or are you saying that this is what the notion of PLEs will lead us to? No, it's not just about commerce. But there is some irony in this, too, because employers are telling us that what they want is active, hands-on, authentic learning pedagogies that actually are more aligned with what we know about learning and good practice than much of what happens in our educational institutions currently upholding ivory tower values. There's often better pedagogy implicit in career training than there is in the pure academic world. So, you may ask, are we talking about subordinating ourselves to career training to a certain extent? The answer is, if we are, what's the problem with that?

ePortfolios Meet Social Software-thanks to the recent advent and grass-fire proliferation of so-called Web 2.0 technologies. Wikis, blogs, and especially social networks are influencing the thinking of ePortfolio designers and potential users. Try It First in Web 2.0: Educators, administrators, and students are experimenting in Web 2.0 space where experimentation is (for the most part) less risky than in real life.

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