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The Move from Course Management to Course Networking

A Q&A with Ali Jafari

Over the past 18-plus years, LMS pioneer-developer Ali Jafari has applied his extensive research in learning technologies to the creation of learning management systems. Working at IU, he founded Oncourse — the first open source LMS and the basis and springboard for Sakai — and ANGEL Learning, which became a major competitor in the LMS marketplace and was ultimately acquired by Blackboard. His designs have taken their place among the world's leading learning management systems.

But in 2011, with his creation of CourseNetworking (, Jafari's work began to take a distinct turn, focusing more on social, global, and collaboration technologies. It's what he has identified as the move from course management to course networking. Campus Technology talked with Jafari, at work in his lab at IUPUI, to find out why this strategy is a major shift for learning platforms.

Mary Grush: As a developer, you have worked at the core of much of the mainstream LMS technology that's in place today — your foundational work has been acquired and marketed throughout the country and the world by major LMS companies. But even after all your success and the wide acceptance of LMS platforms you've developed, you are not walking away from all that. You are still in there developing new models — new learning environments. Doesn't the LMS work well enough?

Ali Jafari: Well, yes, of course the LMS works, technically, but consider: Is this really the way we want it to work? It's disturbing to me that the LMS hasn't changed the way we teach and learn.

If you study the impact that IT has had as an enabler in different areas of society, you find that when it comes to education, it's been very, very minimal. Yes, courses can now be offered online or have online elements, but generally, we are still teaching the way we have been for so many years — for centuries actually. The LMS hasn't changed this.

Grush: Where is change needed?

Jafari: As LMS designers we suggested, "Why not simply connect teachers and learners of a given class together?" But still, the old model that most institutions have been heavily invested in for so long requires that learning should happen within the classroom, and it must be tied to the specific number of weeks in a term.

And though we've seen many flavors of LMS, all were based on this 18-year-old LMS model. We need now to have a totally new type of learning environment, both conceptually and technically, and it will also need to be different from a business perspective.

Grush: What kind of technology would contribute to these changes and to this new kind of learning environment?

Jafari: During the time the LMS has been in use, social networking and social media sites have appeared. And that's kind of an accidental discovery for educators. Social networking allows us to be connected to people and engage with them in ways we haven't been able to before. So, for education, we need to provide a similar mechanism so that students and teachers can be connected, can be networked, and can collaborate with others — others from their own class and from far beyond.

This means we are talking about a social network engine — somewhat like Facebook, Twitter, and others. Everyone in the broader context is in one network. It doesn't matter if you are attending IU or a university in the Middle East — it's all one network.

Grush: So then is this the main conceptual change you are building into your current learning environment, CourseNetworking? And have you said that you see this as the move from course management to course networking?

Jafari: Yes, networking functionality is the main design element that totally changes the learning and the teaching and learning activities from what we've seen in previous LMS platforms. Just to give you one quick, but powerful example, the student using CN is not limited to interactions with the 30 or 35 students in the "class" — the doors of the classroom can be opened up if desired, even for a global reach.

Of course, there are things we will want to maintain from the previous LMS strategies — keeping in mind security and FERPA issues, and still providing the learning management tools… But, the difference now is the networking and social learning we've enabled. Students and teachers can find, collaborate, and engage with other learners in ways that are familiar to them.

Grush: So would that include familiar social networking elements like posting?

Jafari: Yes, interactions like making an assignment or asking a question show up as posts. The students are loving this familiar look and feel — it's very comfortable for them. Meanwhile we have moved learning engagement light years ahead of where we were with the LMS.

You might think of CN as a complete social learning suite combined with comprehensive learning management tools, along with associated elements like ePortfolio, data mining, globalization and collaboration tools, and much more. Technically it's extensive and extensible, but very accessible and friendly to users.

Grush: I know there are many examples you could give me, and many aspects to this shift in your strategy for building learning environments. I'd like to explore just a few in the space we have here. First of all, what is the input of higher education users to your designs of this new learning environment?

Jafari: The CN is truly designed and architected by the end user. I can say this because every two weeks we have a new release. Compare that to the legacy LMS, for which, in general, they may have a new release every year. We constantly get feedback through the postings of our end users. That's why the development of the CN is so rapid. And I'm very proud that we are able to make the CN work for the higher education culture by being so responsive to the needs of our users. I know a lot of companies will claim to be, but CN is literally "by higher education for higher education".

Grush: What is something that stands out in terms of having received great feedback?

Jafari: Of course there are so many things that come to mind. Just as a quick but very important example, our "Anar seed" reward system, which encourages students to contribute content and stay engaged, has received very positive feedback, particularly from the students — they are happy to earn "Anar seeds" as they use various features of the CN.

Grush: Is serving mobile users an important part of the CN?

Jafari: The CN strategically believes in and is offering smart mobile apps as an important feature of the learning environment. Not only is this a necessary offering for today's students who are accustomed to a very mobile lifestyle, it is also critical for developing countries where smartphone purchases are preferred over laptops as an affordable option — or maybe the only option in many cases — to be connected.

Grush: A big part of the CN is its "social portfolio" — how is this different from the typical ePortfolio platforms we're used to seeing today?

Jafari: The "typical" ePortfolio you mention is defined at the simplest level as a tool that students use to showcase their work, for their instructors to grade and critique and for potential employers to review. This implies deliberate work from the student, the teacher, and even the potential employer. But with the CN, we have what is not a typical ePortfolio — it's what we are calling a "social portfolio".

Every student on the CN has a "social portfolio", which will be there for the student to access, life long. This social portfolio is different from a "typical" ePortfolio in several ways, but importantly, it can be created dynamically — for example, a teacher might check a box indicating that each student in the top ten percent of her class will receive a badge. Beyond that checkbox, everything happens automatically, without a need for the student to locate and upload the badge for display, and no need for the teacher to monitor or be further involved with the awarding of badges. As a student I can manage my social portfolio, and determine who will see or not see certain elements of it. But my maintenance is not difficult, given the automated functions of the social portfolio feature.

Grush: What about the global nature of CN, and the ability to interact with learners far beyond your class?

Jafari: There are a few features in the CN that really help define it and make it very unique as a learning environment. One of these is the CN Global Classmate. As a student, if you make a post as part of your work in a given course, you can elect to share that post with your classmates for that course, and if you choose, also with your "global classmates". The system already knows the content area of the course, which allows you to share that post easily with students taking classes in that general subject area — students from all around the world, literally.

Over time, very rich content communities will grow up through this type of sharing. To help build these communities, the CN is, beginning this coming fall, providing a free LTI module called CN Post that works inside any institution's existing LMS, such as Canvas, Moodle, or Sakai. This is free to any education institution in the world and will work within your legacy LMS as long as that LMS is LTI compliant. To find out how to get access to CN Post, just send an e-mail to [email protected]. Students using your legacy LMS will then have links to the CN Global Network posts, be able to make posts themselves, and also have access to their own CN social portfolio.

So, with CN Post, CN is providing global connectivity — perhaps the most useful feature of the CN learning environment — to other institutions, for free, within their LTI-compliant legacy LMS. One of the first institutions using this is Indiana University, which will make this available within all its 34,000 courses.

Grush: Given your history of knocking learning designs out of the ballpark, the CN, with its emphasis on social learning, is something we should all keep a watch on. But the natural question is — may I ask — what is your over all sustainability and business model?

Jafari: Of course. To put this rather simply, it all goes back to the architecture of social networking. Basically, we have very little overhead, as we are building and maintaining really one big network — instead of necessarily supporting many, many independent institutional client implementations. This alone will make a huge difference in the marketability of the CN and the sustainability of our business model, as well as the affordability of our services.

That said, institutions can still take control over their implementation and use of the CN on their own campus. We offer a paid private channel for licensed institutions, where they have full control over user account creation, campus wide analytics, the campus social network, and advanced functionalities.

And circling back for a minute to CN Post, remember that we have the ability to make our CN Global Network available for free to users all over the world, which will grow our network almost immeasurably, making it not only a richer experience for users, but also more and more stable and sustainable.

Why are we doing all this, anyway? Because as educators we want all learners throughout the globe to be dynamically and intelligently connected together.

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