Technology to build knowledge (sharing) networks – the quick start

As of today, there are a number of free online applications that can be used in different combinations to build an online knowledge network. One of the key factors in determining where to begin is the question “who are my (hoped for) participants”. Understanding who you want to contribute and collaborate will help establish some important factors you will use to select your applications. Issues such as the general level of technical proficiency of your participants and the need for secure storage of works in progress (or research) will help set the initial boundaries for selection.

For1389388545_facebook_social_circle broad public access, with a low barrier for entry, Facebook offers a good starting point.  Creating a Facebook group will allow you to connect with your initial network while facilitating its growth. The nearly ubiquitous penetration of Facebook across a broad spectrum of the population will help in reaching out to your hoped for participants.

1389388519_wordpress_social_circleIn combination with Facebook, a blog can provide a valuable repository for documents and longer form articles and updates. Authorship on a blog can (and likely should be) more strictly controlled and monitored. This is a necessity to manage spam and unwanted posts. This can also create a tiered membership – with trusted sources given access to the blog for posting. Framed correctly this can act as an aspiration for motivated participants of a more open forum (Facebook). Framed incorrectly this can easily replicate a dynamic of power that devalues contributions from your larger network.

With these two elements you can build the foundations of an online knowledge network. Both components can feed into each other, so that awareness of activity is maintained in both ‘locations’. Additional elements can be integrated to grow the capabilities of the network in a staged and thoughtful manner to either expand the capabilities of your network, or publicize its work. These elements are discussed below.

1389388589_twitter_social_circleTwitter – is a micro-blogging platform, and the case could be made that it should comprise one of the foundational elements of your network. Twitter is a network, in and of itself, with a user group that can overlap with Facebook. But Twitter has some unique features and benefits that recommend it as an important expansion of your network.

Twitter allows you to connect with other users and organizations that may not be direct members of your knowledge network, but who work in related organizations or fields. You can use Twitter to maintain awareness of their activities and inform them (if they are following you) of your activity. Many times new resources are shared on Twitter that can be of value to you and your network. This shared discovery of new resources is one of the strengths of twitter and is especially effective if you take time to follow users who are relevant to your knowledge domain.

Twitter also allows you to broadcast updates from your blog. For example, every time one of your blog users posts a new update or article, the blog can send a message to twitter that will then be broadcast to your followers.

1389388576_dropbox_social_circle_1_1_6Google Drive, or Dropbox can provide secure or private collaborative space and document storage. This can be useful if you are developing new materials, or sharing resources that may have restrictions on them (copy write issues, works in progress). The use of this type of tool demands a bit more technological skill, but is likely well within the ability range of your network members.

1389401220_social_4Youtube is for video. If and when you are generating video (captured talks, narrated powerpoints, documentation of community activity) uploading them to youtube offers many benefits. Youtube can be integrated into many blogging platforms, provides free storage and bandwidth and can help grow awareness of your activities and intent.

Mobilizing Moodle – a review of “Moodle for Mobile Learning” video course

Being forward thinking I installed a responsive theme for Moodle when we upgraded to 2.0. I tested the site on an iPad and my phone and the page displayed, I could login and access course content. We were all set for the mobile age. I hadn’t spent much more time thinking about mobilizing Moodle until I had the opportunity to view the video course “Moodle for Mobile Learning” from Packt Publishing.

9123_Video (1)This video course, authored by Graeme Boxwell, revealed a whole world of customization that needs to happen to truly make Moodle mobile friendly for learners. “Moodle for Mobile Learning” covers issues such as reshaping content for  effective delivery on mobile devices, using the audio and video capabilities of mobiles for education and integrating social media in your course. Graeme clearly explains, and illustrates, methods and pathways through Moodle that will insure that your well crafted course becomes an engaging and well crafted mobile learning opportunity.

The video modules of this course are short (generally 3 to 5 minutes), focused and well scripted. Graeme has a deep knowledge of Moodle and uses it well, filtering out the extraneous and stepping the viewer through each process patiently and efficiently. Packt has developed a reputation as a reliable source of learning and this addition to their offerings reinforces that reputation.

Section 6 alone, which addresses Mobile Assessment, is worth the cost of this course. Some points raised in this section are seemingly self evident but (speaking from experience here) easily overlooked. This section also reinforces the point that there is some actual work that has to happen to make a course engaging for mobile learners. It (and the whole course) also points towards a deeper understanding of the potential of mobiles to enliven education, if a course is approached with intent and understanding by the course creator.

I was surprised that the module on “Fostering Reflective Learners through Mobile Blogs” (8.3) made no mention of Mahara. The integration of Mahara with Moodle would seem to naturally recommend this combination as appropriate for reflective engagement. And while Mahara may not yet have the range of mobile flexibility that Moodle has, I find it hard to imagine that it will not catch up soon.

Having worked with Moodle for a almost a decade now, I look for new learning resources that can deepen my knowledge in a usable way. “Moodle for Mobile Learning” is a treasure chest of new learning that will help me as I work with instructors and course creators to reshape their courses for a mobile world. If I had any kind of consistent rating system I would give this video course five stars (out of five).

More information, including a complete listing of course content by section, is available online at

Evolving Web-based Online Courses

An Evolving Web-based Online Course (EWOC) represents a method for the use of online technologies to create interactive, engaged, and engaging, learning opportunities. An EWOC is meant to be responsive to the needs of participants, with course topics being fluid, open to amendment and able to reflect the interests and learning requirements of participants. EWOC’s rely heavily on social interaction, peer learning, and reflective assessment as techniques for creating meaningful learning experiences for participants.

Common technologies used for the creation of an EWOC include:

  • Webinars
  • LCMS’s
  • Twitter
  • Etc…

woven together to create a dialogic learning space online.

In many ways an EWOC is a counter-MOOC. The role of course facilitator is in-depth and essential in fostering a dialogic learning space that can evoke new knowledge while encouraging equitable, and sustained, participation over the duration of a course. An EWOC is solidly grounded in the Freirean sentiment that “there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.”

Distance learning (a work in progress)

Starting out from two options:

Synchronous (same time): For example a webinar, or live lecture/presentation via video

Asynchronous (any time): For example an online course, discussion board, recorded lectures

Each has advantages/disadvantages.

Synchronous learning activities can be captured for reuse in asynchronous settings. Lectures can be integrated into online courses, etc…

Ideally it would be a cycle of content creation, capture and re-use.

Synchronous technology:

Videoconferencing – High end = polycom or similar. Low end = Skype, WebEx

High end has higher costs and more intense bandwidth requirements (generally speaking) with specialized equipment.

Low end videoconferencing is less expensive, often desktop based, quality can vary wildly.

Interactivity may or may not be a feature of videoconferencing (can participants ask questions or is it a lecture)

Asynchronous technology

Learning content management systems (Moodle, Blackboard) – Allow for the presentation of learning content that can be accessed by participants at any time. A LCMS integrates tools for content creation, assessment and presentation into a common application.

Asynchronous learning can be either interactive (integrating discussion forums, peer discussion, etc) or non-interactive (tutorials, recorded lectures)

Capturing content for re-use


Video can be an effective method for capturing and re-presenting learning opportunities. Whether it is a lecture or a demonstration of a specific technique, video can extend the reach of an expert to a larger audience brining new knowledge and content to underserved audiences. Video can stand alone to function as a tutorial, or be integrated into a LCMS as part of a structured learning experience.

Video capture has become much more affordable, and it is possible to produce high quality video for instructional use with fairly inexpensive equipment. Key to producing good quality video is a familiarity with the equipment and good audio quality. Someone who is comfortable using a video camera can produce more usable video with low end equipment who compared to someone who has expensive gear but doesn’t know how to use it.

This is a fairly universal lesson – knowing the tools and how to use them can produce effective and meaningful results. Deploying new, expensive, fancy tools and technologies for the sake of ‘using’ the latest and greatest will not have the same impact if you do not know how to use them effectively. This may seem like stating the obvious, but where technology is concerned it must be said- over and over again.

Narrated PowerPoint

PowerPoint can too often be deadly. However, when used properly they can help structure material for discussion or content dissemination. Being able to capture a PowerPoint with narration can create effective modules for learning use.  There are effective software packages that make the creation of narrated PowerPoint easy and potentially interactive. Again, one of the key elements to creating a narrated PowerPoint is the audio quality.


Webinars can be recorded. This can be an effective means of capturing content, if the quality is high enough. Audio problems can be an issue with webinars. Inexperienced users can also make it challenging to produce high quality content for re-use.

Jus to re-emphasize – knowing the tools and how to use them can produce effective and meaningful results. Spending time working with any potential instructors who are going to be using Webinars so that they feel comfortable with the tool is time well spent.

Digital literacy – the key to unlocking distance learning

Regardless of how much technology we throw at an issue, the measure of effectiveness comes down to people knowing how to use the technology to accomplish tasks. This is universally true.  In order for distance learning to have the desired outcome digital literacies must be present in both the instructor and participant.

At this point in time, with rare exceptions, any effort to use distance learning technologies as a tool for outreach and engagement must include elements of digital literacy training. I would argue that this is more important than any given technology choice. Tools, a variety of tools, can be used to create the end result – but no tool can do it on its own. Developing the necessary skill set to effectively use distance learning technologies will be the make or break factor in any effort.

Useful Citations

Araque, J. C., Maiden, R. P., Bravo, N., Estrada, I., Evans, R., Hubchik, K., … & Reddy, M. (2013). Computer usage and access in low-income urban communities. Computers in Human Behavior29(4), 1393-1401.

Borthwick K., Dickens A. (2013), The Community Café: creating and sharing open educational resources with community-based language teachers, Journal of e-Learning and Knowledge Society, v.9, n.1, 73-83. ISSN: 1826-6223, e-ISSN:1971-8829

Clary, R. M., & Wandersee, J. H. (2010). Virtual Field Exercises in the Online Classroom: Practicing Science Teachers’ Perceptions of Effectiveness, Best Practices, and Implementation. Journal of College Science Teaching39(4), 50-58.

Jaggars, S. (2011). Online learning: does it help low-income and underprepared students?.

Jung, I., & Latchem, C. (2011). A model for e‐education: Extended teaching spaces and extended learning spaces. British Journal of Educational Technology42(1), 6-18.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R. F., & Baki, M. (2013). The Effectiveness of Online and Blended Learning: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature.Teachers College Record115, 1-47.

New York Library Association, 21st Century Information Literacy Standards for the Digital Learners of New York

Simonson, M. R. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. Boston ; Munich [u.a.: Allyn & Bacon.

Empowering technology? Tablets, youth and collaborative video production.

I recently spent a few days working with 25 4-H youth in a program focused (loosely) on digital storytelling. This is the fourth year I’ve conducted this program and I always intend to gather my thoughts afterwards in some sort of coherent fashion – but it always seems to slip away from me. This is my attempt to frame some coherent thoughts, reflections and questions around my experience conducting this workshop.

Empowering technology?

IMG_5052I deeply believe that technology can be empowering and, in the best of circumstances, transformative in its usage.  It is the foundation from which I work, it is the hope that empowers me when I undertake this workshop. In the 12+ years I have been engaged with youth through this program (previous years focused on web development and/or mobile devices with the transition 4 years ago to digital storytelling) I have seen glimpses of transformation in some of the kids I’ve been fortunate to work with. But I am coming to think this has less to do with the tools we use, and much more to do with creating a space that supports the process. It may seem obvious, but it has taken me a while to come to this understanding, to actually work from this understanding.

So it may be better to say I deeply believe in the potential of technology to be a useful tool for empowerment and transformation. The same can be said of poetry, theater, etc…the tool is the tool. The space and method of working with the tool can be supportive of exploration, discovery and transformation (with the converse always being true, as well). So it all comes down to intent – my intent when approaching this workshop.

That being said…

Having good tools to work with makes it far easier to keep intention in mind. Less time spent troubleshooting, working with multiple quirks, searching for specific IMG_5024cables and so on, means more time spent interacting with (and supporting) actual productive “work”. In years past I’ve worked with whatever I could lay hands on – which usually meant a mish-mash of video and still cameras of varying pedigree – leading to incompatibilities and wondrous challenges focused on just getting content off the menagerie of devices. This is obviously less than optimal.

And the physical environment can present its own challenges. At various times I’ve held sessions in labs, computer labs and the lobby of a library. Last year we used a collaborative center within one of the libraries here on campus. The collab center was built to facilitate shared work (unsurprisingly) and has flexible partitions, whiteboards and reasonable setting. Being in a library is interesting. Kids have been trained to silence in libraries and even though the collab center is positioned to allow for more activity and noise there is still the ambience of library. My experience is that this helps settle things down much more rapidly when chaos begins to creep in. A simple reminder that we are in a library is often enough to moderate voices, to diminish ‘horseplay’. (And I realize this makes me sound somewhat…aged, if not downright ancient. But after 4 or 5 hours of working together it’s very easy for the chaotic trickster spirit to be evoked with little effort. I want to maintain just enough of the trickster energy to foster creativity and engagement, but don’t want to have it slide over into unfocused chaos.)

This year my group was able to work with ten tablets for content capture and some creation. These tablets are part of a larger project in which NYS 4-H is participating. I pre-configured the tablets so that they all had the same apps and a connection to a shared dropbox account. The tablets were set to automatically upload images and videos to the shared account.

My hope was that a shared account would make it possible for some groups of kids to be out capturing content while others remained in our collaborative center able to download and work with the content. This should lead to a much more rapid production cycle. It would also allow groups to sub-divide and have one or two members out in the field while one or two we able to work on a desktop pc editing.

I was somewhat skeptical of the tablets as capture devices. I have an iPad and have used it to capture some video and was not overly impressed with the quality – it was adequate but does not work for me as a video camera replacement. So I was interested to see what these new tablets could do.

I will also admit to some reservations about the potential of the tablets as distraction. There was nothing to stop any of the kids from downloading games or other apps from the Google store. And the display is quite nice and we all know YouTube can provide hours of distraction, should you so desire.

So I distributed the tablets and was hopeful, but not overly optimistic, that they would provide more utility than distraction.

Look! A squirrel…

IMG_5003We broke into 5 groups with topical foci. 25 is a large number of teens to work with and my prior experiences have always lead me to believe that at least one of my groups will ‘check out’ pretty early into the program. So I anticipated, and within the first hour had already identified my ‘disinterested participants’. And again, with a group that large I expected some chaos accompanied by whispered reprimands or icy glares from annoyed library patrons.

There is always an interesting degree of diversity in the kids who choose to participate in my workshops. In many ways it is a fair representation of the diversity of New York State, drawing from rural, suburban and urban 4-H clubs. At least 3 or 4 are fairly fully digitally literate, bring a solid technical skillset to the group. All of the kids are socially networked. Without overstating the obvious – this is a radical change from just 5 years ago.

Whether you love or hate Facebook, it does facilitate a baseline level of digital literacy. It may not be a comprehensive literacy (think about issues around data security here) but it does support skills for creating and posting content online. Couple this with the increasingly pervasive presence of smartphones being used to capture images and video and our teens now have a fairly robust creation and production skillset in use, which is woven through many of their daily activities.

The novelty factor was in play for the first 15 minutes of use. Mastering the interface was no great struggle. The tablets we were working with use the Android OS which was familiar to some of the kids from their phones. Functionality across an Android and iPad tablet are similar enough to not be an impediment to effective use.

Mediating relationships

IMG_4957I also need to note the ability of technology to act as a buffer and mediator. I’ve seen this happen in many different contexts. Placing a piece of technology in the middle of an unacquainted and mixed group and asking them to use the technology can bridge boundaries very rapidly. This initial focal point is neutral (in some ways) and allows participants to get to know each other as they explore the tool.

There is also a process of peer learning and teaching that can unfold in the right conditions. Some of the more technically adept kids can help other learn how to use the new tool. This draws out sometimes reticent participants, and values their contributions which can be obscured by the more socially outgoing participants. This process of relationship building can be encouraged as part of the facilitation process, but it cannot be enforced. Trust, confidence in the workshop and a receptiveness by all to work together are necessary elements that can cultivate an atmosphere of peer learning and teaching.

Tablets as capture devices

I use my iPad primarily as a consumption device. My few attempts to use it for video have been disappointing, at best. Personal experience has lead me to conclude my smartphone is a better device for media capture. I find it easier to hold steady and movement is fairly fluid with the smaller form factor.

So, my expectations for high quality, usable, video being captures on the tablet was low. I came prepared with several handheld video cameras, considering them more appropriate to the task at hand. I expected the bulk of video that would be used would come from the video cameras, with the tablets contributing small clips or images.

My expectations were consistently confounded during the course of our workshop – and this was no exception. The kids were adept at handling the tablets, video cameo out crisp and clear, and the audio quality was very good. A lot of usable content. As a matter of fact, the bulk of the content used in the videos we produced were captured using the tablets.

There was also a spontaneity in using the tablets that is missing or more difficult to achieve with a traditional video camera. Sometimes people react unnaturally once a camera lens is turned on them – they ‘act’ for the camera. The tablets seem to moderate this effect, to a degree. And the capture ability is always there with a tablet. It is a matter of switching apps, not pulling out a separate device and intruding into whatever space the kids are working in.

And there is the familiarity factor. A tablet is (in some ways) a large smartphone. With the introduction of Vine (which was surprisingly popular with some of the kids) spontaneously grabbing video is just a normal everyday activity. This ‘habit’ of capture and go is a beginning, but only that. It is like a moving still picture – a snapshot, discrete and unconnected.  To intentionally capture and weave together video, images, and sounds into a story is missing from this process.

Bracketing out a challenging issue

Having a topic is a kind of starting point. Having something meaningful to say, or ask, is a larger challenge. This is the gap with video snapshots. They are spontaneous but often without intent. Intent demands some reflection and grasp of where one stands in the world. This issue of intent is another chapter, a whole universe which has been explored deeply by others and which demands its own exploration beyond the scope of this document (which started out intending to be a somewhat concise blog post).

Finally. Trying to wrap this up

I wanted to capture a few thoughts and reflections, but obviously opened a can of worms. I hope to revisit this topic soon. Weed through and sort out a bit more of the issues and opportunities.  Some – perhaps most- of what I’ve said is not news, but it is my attempt to order and understand what happened over the course of three days. Some things have been left dangling and I haven’t even begun to encounter some of the pedagogical underpinnings, aspirations and challenges that work of this type surfaces. Nor have I undertaken any rants about the rhetoric around tablets (or any technology) ‘revolutionizing’ education. But that is coming, sometime soon.



CareerExplorations 2013

Waiting for the kids to arrive in about 15 minutes. Walking over to Mann Library I realized that this is my12th year doing a session for Career Ex. And this years group may be the largest Ive worked with (25 kids) which may be a bit ofa challenge. Im hoping for five working groups addressing a variety of topics, from women in science to the impact of STEM programs in low resource communities.

As always I’m starting out with high hopes. ….let’s see what we end up with.


Books that have shaped my perspective of online learning.

I’m cleaning up an online course and wanted to preserve this list, while removing it from the course. And since I’m here I might as well update it a bit.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Paulo Freire – back on the top of my list again.

On Teaching and Learning: Putting the Principles and Practices of Dialogue Education into Action. Jane Vella

e-Learning by Design. William Horton

Learning Theory and Online Technology. Linda Harasim

All links lead to Amazon.

2010 List

Creating Significant Learning Experiences L. Dee Fink – New to my booklist. Highly recommended by Marcia Eames Sheavley.

Discussion-Based Online Teaching to Enhance Student Learning: Theory, Practice and Assessment Tisha Bender

Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom Pallof and Pratt

Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity Etienne Wenger. A classic? I think so- helped form some of my thinking on boundaries, tangibility and so on.

Online Communities: Designing Usability and Supporting Sociability Jenny Preece – Published in 2000 but one of the more influential books I read back then. 10 years is antiquity online, it seems like, but this was an important read for me, and still relevant.

Planning Programs for Adult Learners: A Practical Guide for Educators, Trainers, and Staff Developers Rosemary Caffarella

Education for Critical Consciousness Paolo Freire – Less well known than Pedagogy of the Oppressed but equally important, in my opinion. Includes “Extension or Communication”.

Science Education from People for People: Taking a Stand(point) Wollf-Michael Roth especially, in our context, chapter 3 – Faith in a Seed and chapter 6 Sister City,Sister Science.

There are more but that’s probably more than enough, for now. One note on prices- should you decide that any of these are invaluable and necessary but costly and prohibitive – be sure to check the used listings at Amazon. Many items are available used and fairly inexpensive.

Open, Online Learning – Before and Beyond MOOC’s

Sildeset I used on February 20 to introduce OER’s and MOOC’s to colleagues. Some of the attendees were still quite puzzled by MOOC’s and how they differ from the model for online education that we have developed. This was a start to making that difference plan, but more work is needed. A large part of my life is engaged in work with distance learning and it is increasingly necessary to make plan distinctions between the many ways technology can be employed in learning. MOOC madness has obscured, at least for folks I talk with who are not paying a lot of attention to the subtleties, distinctions and (imho) threaten to damage the appropriate uses of technology for learning.

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