Monday, June 18, 2007

The media equivalency debate

One of the topics that instructional and training novices don't know, don't understand, or don't transfer, is the concept that quality instruction isn't media-dependent. Or is it? [1]

The debate first started in earnest with a debate between Clark and Kozmo in the 1980's. Clark argued that studies had repeatedly demonstrated, that when all other factors were held constant, media didn't effect instructional effectiveness. Kozmo responded that all other factors are rarely held constant, and that certain media may be better for certain aspects of instructional development. (Yes, that was a gross generalization. If you're interested in the specifics, well go read their papers!)

While I completely understand Clark's arguments, and have tried hard to share that understanding with others, I definitely lean more toward Kozmo's perspective. For example, at present a video demonstration can't be embedded in paper; yes, a series of still images could be rapidly flipped to present a moving image, and with the advent of e-paper it is only a matter of time before video can be embedded in paper, but, right now if an instructional designer determines that a visual demonstration would be instructionally beneficial then paper isn't a realistic media option.

So why am I bringing this up? Well, I'm struggling with this topic while working on my dissertation. Specifically, I'm proposing a financial analysis of open source versus proprietary learning management systems (LMSs). One of the reasons I wanted to do a financial comparison is because a quality financial comparison should include instructional effectiveness criteria. The problem is - an LMS by itself - has no more or less instructional effectiveness than any other type of media. And yet ... dramatic pause ... just as there are differences between paper and television as media, there are differences between individual LMSs as media. One LMS may (and in my own anecdotal experience did) have a more user friendly forum system than another LMS; and such a difference may effect, among other factors, (a) usage - which in turn effects instructional effectiveness, (b) time on task - which in turn effects instructional effectiveness, and (c) focus - which ... say it with me ... - in turn effects instructional effectiveness.

Where does this leave me for my dissertation? Well, I'm trying to balance my own driving need to account for instructional effectiveness with my need to actually complete my dissertation. So, I'm presently going to do a one question likert survey of instructors and students at my study's higher education institutions asking specifically whether they perceive their institution's LMS as being beneficial, detrimental, or neither beneficial or detrimental to instruction and learning. Clearly this doesn't assess actual instructional effectiveness (if you don't know what I'm talking about, you should check out Kirkpatrick's Four Levels of Evaluations model), but I am hoping that, at the very least, it will start to gage such factors as perceptions of usage, time on task, and focus as related to specific LMSs. Ultimately, I expect this one question to highlight if a LMS is particularly beneficial or detrimental in these areas.

Where does this leave you? Well, Wiley's constraint theory of instruction sums it up. A large part of instructional design is dealing with constraints. For example, if you are given a specific instructional topic but no media requirements, then the constraint of the topic should drive the instructional design which will likely impose constraints that lead to a media selection. Did I just loose you? Well, let's go back to the visual demonstration example. If your topic is 'soldering for novices', a good visual demonstration is much easier to design and develop than an instructionally comparable set of static images and a textual description. The visual demonstration could be done live, or in a video, or even in an animation, and it could be done in person, or on a television, or on a computer, but at this point, the constraint 'demonstration' removes paper as a medium - at least for this portion of the instruction. Alternatively, if you are given the topic 'soldering for novices' and the media 'paper', then your initial design constraints will obviously drive your decision to not use video. But these constraints shouldn't ultimately change your unit's instructional effectiveness, but it will require quality images and textual descriptions of the soldering process.

[1] As is true with a lot of terminology in our field, many terms can refer to the same concept. Needless to say, this can cause some confusion. For the most part, I refer to the concept that is discussed in this entry as technology. But since this argument is often referred to as the media debate, it only made sense to use the word media for this entry.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Triple header: eduCommons, OCW & New Media for Learning

For those that don't know me, I am spending my doctoral years working for the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning (COSL). The lead COSL project is eduCommons - open source software that supports any institution in the deployment of an OpenCourseWare (OCW) instance. Many people are aware of the initial OCW implementation by MIT; but a lot people are unaware that there are other OCW implementations and an OCW Consortium; and even fewer people are aware that there is eduCommons.

For those that aren't familiar with the concept of OpenCourseWare, the basic premise is that digital course materials, things such as syllabi, homework, even classroom videos, are made freely and openly available to the public. These materials can be used as refreshers for students that have previously taken the course, building material for instructors at other institutions constructing their own courses, learning for people without access to any educational institution, or any other reason a person wants. So how does a person find relevant material? If you know that a particular institution has a course of interest, you can start at that institution's OCW site. But if you aren't aware of any particular institution then you can use the OCW Consortium's search to find materials. For example, if you are interested in learning about how to use blogs or wikis in an educational setting, the first search item with the terms "blogs wikis" pulls up the "Blogs, Wikis, New Media for Learning" course from Utah State University.

The New Media for Learning course covers topics including, blogs, RSS, creating audio & video podcasts & screencasts, wikis, bookmark & photo sharing, folksonomies, GIS/maps/satellite tools, hacks and mash-ups. If you aren't familiar with some of these topics, you should check-out this course. As you make your way through it remember - there are many free and open materials available on OCWs that you can use in your own blogs, wikis, and any mash-up that you can imagine.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Railscasts: An example of an excellent instructional podcast

Railscasts is an excellent podcast series that provides several examples of instructional best practices.

Watch Post 10: Refactoring User Name part 1 (in browser Quicktime .mov) and note several things that Ryan does:
  • It's short, sweet, and to a specific point. It covers one aspect of refactoring; other aspects are covered in other podcasts. It is under 6 minutes long, just short enough that a viewer can watch it on a break to learn a new task skill (just-in-case training) or to watch it as a job aid to learn the new task skill they need at a specific moment (just-in-time training).
  • He starts off with a definition of refactoring; this definition provides a mile-high preview of what the user can expect to learn in the next 5 minutes.
  • Immediately following the definition, he explains how this task is relevant to the viewer.
  • He only shows you what you need to see at any one moment. For example, when he starts to show you the code, the only thing on the screen is the application TextMate. You can see the title bar, menu bar, tab bar and text editing area, each of which is useful to a viewer. What he doesn't show you is the unnecessary Mac OS X taskbar or a cluttered desktop. This helps a viewer stay focused on the task at hand by reducing cognitive overload.
  • He provides a visual indicator for which application he is currently using via the built-in cmd-tab visuals of OS X [1].
  • (If you watch later Railscasts, you will also notice keyboard commands via KeyCastr software [2]; sadly, most computer programming videos fail to provide this vital information.)
  • When he's talking about a specific section of code he highlights that section of code to draw your attention to it instead of just assuming you know what code he is talking about.
Some of these points, while clearly specific to computer programming, have parallels in other disciplines. For example, in the last point, if you're making a biology podcast, you may need to visually highlight a specific organ in addition to verbally describing it (and it may even be necessary to highlight the organ from multiple perspectives, e.g., anterior and posterior).

A couple of inherent motivational aspects of this podcast are the ability for the viewer to (a) stop the podcast and perform the same code modifications and (b) complete the same task or set of tasks in a relatively brief period of time. These two aspects respectively provide users an opportunity to increase their own confidence in changing the code and satisfaction at completing the task being studied.

One last positive example from Ryan's series is his webpage sharing the software and themes he uses in programming and the podcasts, as well as a link to access the podcasts in alternative forms.

[1] MS Windows has a similar feature.
[2] I don't know if there is a similiar application for MS Windows.