Category Archives: eLearning

Community Brainstorm: Requirements for Personal Learning Environments

Personal Learning Environments (PLE)’s like ePortfolios seem like a great idea that has yet to coalesce into a winning product. How about a bit of community brainstorming and requirements ideation. Since these are Personal Learning Environments we want, let’s write short “ads” in the style of Craigslist/Newspaper personals. For example:

MWM seeks PLE for portfolio storage, study breaks must be non-smoker, LTI preferred.

Post to twitter with the hashtag #plepad and it should show up in the stream below.


Here is a collection of personal ad acronyms to get started.

Crackdown on Coursera

Bartender pouring drinks

Would you care for a stiff drink of free online learning.

It seems that some government officials in Minnesota have declared those offering MOOCs or other free online classes to be dangerous outlaws who must be prosecuted. What’s next? Will Minnesota go after Khan Academy? Hacker spaces and Instructables? Enterprising Barry Dahl suggests opening coffee shops over the border where students might freely learn. I suppose this beats the alternative of going to some underground speakeasy, or should it be “learneasy” where some bright bohemians will drink from the cup of free online learning through foreign proxy servers.

Eugene Volokh of the UCLA School of Law and the Volokh Conspiracy blog explores some of the constitutional and legal issues in play here for those scratching their head wondering how this can be remotely constitutional.

Update: Slate reports that Minnesota has reconsidered its position and will cease the crack down on any free online courses. As FDR said upon the repeal now is a great time for a beer.

Back to School: Cheaters Edition

First let me note up front that I know MOOC is a potentially incorrect term and that we are really talking about Coursera courses that are open enrollment and delivered to large numbers of students for free. The press has labeled it a MOOC cheating scandal, so I’m using the term in that context.

Dr Chuck was in town recently and we had an opportunity to talk at length about some of the recent headlines around cheating, especially the recent issue at Coursera.

Reflecting on our discussion the following thoughts have been bouncing around my head.

Future expected value of Coursera Certificates.

Specifically as Coursera becomes a more mainstream way to get educational content there may come a point where actual academic credit was granted to students completing the course. A view that cheating is widespread in fully online programs could be extremely harmful to free online courses. A secondary effect of the anticipated value of the course may be the trigger for the behavior of other students who took it upon themselves to identify the cheating students.

The Solitaire Problem

People cheat at solitaire and single player video games. There are probably a number of reasons people would cheat in these situations, but I expect that some of them are motivated primarily by the desire to finish or complete the game for its own sake. When it comes to reducing and policing online cheating among these students, I anticipate student’s completion pressure will outweigh any social penalty. These cheaters don’t seem as motivated by the external validation or social rewards. However these users can as will be caught by their peers who have a vested interest in the value of the program.

Instruction practice and good course design remain important tools to block both types of cheaters. Courses which encourage collaboration and use peer review, can discourage certain types of cheating such as plagiarism. Courses that have a high status value to students, encourage students to police the class because they don’t want the course to lose value.

Instructure’s Black Eye

Instructure got a bit of a black eye when a software update allowed a large number of students to change grades, resulting in front page headlines in the Salt Lake Tribune. Instructure has been less than forthcoming about the nature of the bug and even suggested that the grade changes may have been inadvertent by the students, not intentional. Given the fact that Canvas is supposed to be a single multi-tenant instance one wonders if this was grade book corruption limited to a single customer or if there may be more widespread problems and security lapses.

Last year Instructure went out of its way to do a public security audit and invited Phil Hill into view the process. I think we’ve now seen that this was more of a marketing stunt than a real commitment to transparency and openness about their security, or a demonstration of a continuous process. Point in time security audits are fairly meaningless if a code base is changing ever week.

Harvard Students Get Busted

There has also been a lot of publicity around a major cheating scandal at Harvard. In reviewing the reports in the media. I can see how the course design, student expectations and even classroom management played a role in the actions by the students. The class seems to have had limited participation requirements and the grade was totally dependent on the final exam. Students were told they didn’t even have to show up for class, as long as they passed the final exam. They were told by peers and the teacher that this class was easy. I don’t think this excuses the behavior of the students. After all these are Harvard students who are supposed to be the best educated, elite of the elite.

Going back to the Coursesa incident it is notable that students in a free program with unknown academic value are willing to out their fellow students, while the students who are getting a Harvard “A” cover it up and actually copy their peers.

The uncertain future value is key here. The students at Coursera are much more heavily invested in the integrity of the experience because it will only have value if the community makes it have value. Harvard students get the benefit of public social currency in the public belief in the quality and integrity of the academic experience at Harvard. The immediate reward from taking and completing a free online class is the knowledge gained and there is a possibility of a future reward if the free online class certificate is seen by others as meaningful. The immediate reward of an “A” in the Harvard class was having an “A” on your transcript and the future reward of a Harvard degree is a known thing. If there are fifty resumes for a single entry level opening and you are interviewing 3 candidates, the person with the Harvard diploma has a decent chance of getting into the top 3 all other things being equal.

Closing Thoughts

A few themes emerge. First is that we can always be wary of the difference between marketing and reality. Marketing would say that all Harvard courses are academically challenging, Instructure is secure, etc. However reality paints a more complex picture. The second is that high SAT scores and admission standards do not alter the fundementals of human behavior. If people think they can get something by cheating, many will, even elite students. Finally we see that great courses can be taught anywhere. Good design and setting expectations for students can deter cheating. Students need to understand that the value of the “A” is only good if it is earned, and if others are getting the “A” without earning it, it is diminishing the value of their own experience.

Eight Tips to Reduce Online Cheating in Your Online Class

Jeffrey Young talked to me for a story he was doing on online cheating for the Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve given a lot of thought to the problem of cheating in online courses during my career building edu software. Here are a few tips I’ve gathered to help you build online courses that stop cheaters.

1-Culture and Learning Design — The culture of the class and the learning design can have a major impact on cheating behaviors.  More constructivist activities like blogging, wiki creation and group projects tend to reward learning.  Foster a culture that rewards contributing to the corpus of knowledge within the class.  If students are recognized for individual contributions, they will pressure their peers to do their own work rather than copy each other.

2-Question Pools and Random Blocks — Build question pools and use random blocks instead of single questions— Instead of giving each student the same question, create variations for each topic area and then use the “random block” feature to show a different set of questions with the same difficulty for each student.  If you have a question bank from a publisher this is very easy to do because questions are often tagged by level of difficulty and topic.

3-Randomize Question Ordering, Answer Order and Question by Question display — In most systems you can set a quiz to go question by question, instead of all at once.  You can also randomize the order of questions and the order of multiple choice or matching questions.  This makes copying off another student’s system a bit more difficult.

4-Change quiz feedback display options — for high stakes exams change feedback display options to hold the feedback until after the grades are posted.  You can also limit the time that feedback is available for students.

5-Use “Negative marking” — You can assign negative points for a wrong answer.  This penalizes students for guessing by lowering their overall score with each wrong answer. This feature was added to quizes in Blackboard Learn SP8.

6-Use calculated questions — Calculated questions allow you define a range of variables and formula to ensure that each student does a unique problem set.  

7-Allow multiple attempts and use “formative assessments”— use the quiz to help the learner understand the topic rather than high stakes summative quizzing.  The goal here is to develop topic mastery by having students take the same quiz multiple tmes in the learning process and be able to see their ongoing mastery of the subject.  By lowering the stakes of the individual quiz attempt the student is rewarded for learning rather than punished for failing. 

8- Think like a video game designer — Consider video games where the player repeats the same level over and over again until they master it.  In really good games the mastery of the level is the reward, and using a cheat code makes the game boring and unplayable. “Watch a video, click next and take a quiz” style courses reward “cheating” and copying.  Completing the sequence is the reward, people will do whatever gets them through sequence the fastest. Cheating may be a symptom that the learning design needs to be revisited for the activities in the class. For more on this read Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn.

Just Call me the Cookie Monster

One of my recent projects has been to look at how the UK Cookie Law may affect universities and software makers such as my employer. Some folks have even started calling me, “the cookie monster”.
I guess I’ve earned that moniker after months of meeting with product owners, customers and lawyers to talk about this new law. I’m not a lawyer, so what you a reading here is just one guys opinion. My employer’s blog will have more official details. My goal here is to try to explain some background into my thinking after chatting with lawyers, clients and attending a few briefings by SIAA and others.

Compliance is fairly straightforward. Here is the model I used:

Get a list of all your organizations web sites and web applications

Depending on how large your organization is this might prove painful. Especially if you have random departments websites

Figure out if the site is likely to be used by people in the UK or EU

The UK law enforces the EU Data Protection Directive. The law protects these users. You’ll want to review this and decide what your risks are. Is the UK ICO going to come after a WordPress blog in the US? I don’t know.
Also sites such as intranets used just within a company by employees probably don’t need to be reviewed because only your employees are using it in a private capacity. On the other has if customers and others use the site then it probably needs to be reviewed.

Next make a list of cookies

There are first party cookies like those set by IIS, Tomcat and PHP. Then there are all the thirds party cookies set by all all those Facebook like buttons, tweet counters and Google Analytics. Finally there are things like flash cookies, HTML local storage, mobile app storage which count as cookies under the regulations. I used the View Cookies extension for Firefox as a starting point.

Figure out what the cookies are doing
What is being connected to that cookie. Since programmers try to use cookies for many things. For example you might have the Google Analytics cookie. Or you might have a session cookie that is tracking users and letting the user set preferences. The law says if the cookie is strictly necessary, you don’t have to get use consent. However since most cookies do double duty and most sites have other cookies, it really is better just to document as many cookies as possible.

Add consent popup or checkbox dialogue to your sites

When the user visits your site, before you set any of these third party or start associating the cookie with personal info, give the user a popup (such as you got when you first visited this site).

I’m using the WordPress Cookie Warning plugin on this site.

Collect the info together and publish

Put a page explaining you cookies. Here is my page.

Review other privacy practices

Take a moment to review the information you are gathering. Make sure this is consistent with your privacy policies and needs. Make sure you store and dispose of private information in ways that match the sensitively of the information gathered. Also review who has access to the information. As information becomes more sensitive you should be locking it down. For example final grades at pretty sensitive, while an email address by itself might less sensitive.

Get ready for more change

Governments around the world are looking at this issue of ePrivacy. As html5 becomes more sophisticated and allows for more sophisticated client applications we will see regulations emerge. The general thrust of these regulations is to rely less on industry standards and place more burdens on website operators.

My take

Big news last week in my software niche. I’m coming up on 13 years writing software at Blackboard. I’m still as passionate as ever about making good software that makes it easy for instructors and learners to share and collaborate. I’m not stopping now and neither are my fellow developers.

I heard a rumor has been spread that I’m giving up on innovation to commoditize. Not just me, but the whole of Blackboard, Angel, Sakai and Moodle. Heck they even say John Baker at D2L gave up. I don’t know maybe D2L did give up, though I doubt it. For the others I know that the rumor is false.

I could point to road maps and recent features, but there are plenty of places like CourseSites where one can see ongoing innovation. The originator of this silly rumor should get the exhaust system on their tank checked. The fumes seem to be making them goofy

Blackboard CourseSites Goes Semantic

There is too much talk about open and openness these days. No one seems to agree on what open is, but everyone agrees it is important. We’ve descended into semantic chaos where people fight to claim they are really “open” and others accuse them of just “openwashing”. I’m taking a break from the terms. Instead I’m just going to describe the technologies I’ve implemented and leave it to you, the reader to decide if you want to call it open, closed, or something else.

To start this new policy off let me describe one of our latest features and then I invite your comments and feedback.

On CourseSites I’m leading ongoing development to make it easy to share the Course experience more broadly via Social Media and Search. This capability is delivered using the emerging Semantic Web infrastructure put forth by the team at the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative and Schema.org.

The first is to create a public component of the course, a web page where anyone can drop by and ask to join, or browse as a guest (if the instructor wants). It links to a public instructor profile with a blog, where the instructor can elect to describe his or herself in a way that connects to the courses they teach. The Course home page also acts as a place to share the educational materials from the class in both IMS Common Cartridge or Blackboard Learn archive format. The materials are shared under the Creative Commons CC-BY license. This allows a permissive reuse of the materials in other educational contexts, while preserving the attribution of the original authors.

These pages contain Semantic web tags to describe the materials they contain. This makes them searchable, share-able and otherwise useful to applications beyond Blackboard. For example look at this example Course Homepage as rendered through the browser:

How the Human Sees the Course Homepage

Now consider how Google sees the same page:

How google views the Course Homepage

Note how information is encoded in a way that Google can pull key details right form the page. Information such as “version” and file links are consumable by a third party application. The descriptive scheme we use has been developed by a broad set of search engine companies at Schema.org (above). This ensures that from the moment we launched this feature Google and other search engines can consume the information.

We’re also experimenting with ways to make this page more accessible to social discovery as well. We include a standard “share” gadget that lets you publish the link to these materials to hundreds of different social media solutions. Also included on these pages is another Semantic Web technology pushed by Facebook called “OpenGraph“. This allows the link you share to Facebook to contain smart data.  Here is that same course homepage viewed through Facebook.

How CourseSites sees the course home page. LInk and title information are pre-populated.

This integration from Blackboard into Google, Bing, and other search engines along with social media like Facebook and Twitter was done completely through the Blackboard Building Blocks technology.  One of my next projects will be to take the building block and work to make it available to other Blackboard installations.  I hope in participating in the adoption of  a standards driven technology supported by search engines and social media, we will encourage sharing, re-use and re-mixing of educational resources that are linked into the LMS/VLE.

Time for IMS Standards to Core and Universal

Two years ago Michael Feldstein presented three tests to demonstrate the “new” Blackboard.

These tests were focused on driving Blackboard towards implementing three important industry standards that enable portability and interoperability of systems. I know that many customers want to be able to consider from a broad set of market choices and they recognize that standards enable that choice.

As of today this challenge is answered. Blackboard has integrated these technologies into its core. Blackboard is first to market with IMS Common Cartridge 1.1 (import and export) and demonstrated interoperability via IMS LIS with Oracle and SunGard at the 2011 Learning Impact Conference. BasicLTI has become and industry standard and is integrated deeply into Blackboard Technologies. LTI powers our partnerships with companies like McGraw-Hill and enables Blackboard Collaborate to integrate with a variety of platforms.

As a person who has been working with IMS standards for a long time, I’m really happy to see this progress. It is personally quite rewarding to see talking about interoperability transform into doing interoperability. Let’s make 2011 the year we transformed this challenge into a benchmark. I await updates from the community on the state of standards in other VLEs such as, Sakai and Moodle. Let’s see those benchmarks and meet them together.

CourseSites Re-Imagined

Cross-posted at my CourseSites blog here

Some have said that the sizzle has gone out of the franchise of the Virtual Learning Environment / Course Management System. They’ve held funerals at conventions and proclaimed the death of the franchise; much like the sci-fi geeks said of Star Trek after Star Trek: Nemesis. Yet these old franchises at their essence were powerful and by reconnecting to their original story and “re-booting” they have risen again. If Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and Dr. Who can do it, why not the VLE and CMS.

A year ago I went out on a mission with a small fanatical team to reimagine the CMS/VLE and take us back to the start of our franchise – and the person who has the biggest impact on teaching and learning – the faculty member. I present to you today the re-imaging of a classic part of the Blackboard story, CourseSites. CourseSites is all about making sure that every single instructor in K-12 and Higher Education can teach on our latest technologies – for free.

From this team’s imagination has come the idea that we can eliminate the barriers to online and hybrid learning using Blackboard Learn 9.1, aspects of Blackboard Collaborate, Managed Hosting and Building Blocks. Using Blackboard Learn 9.1’s inherent open and flexible capabilities, and the support services of our Managed Hosting team, we have been able to create a number of innovative features for teaching and learning. These include:

Social Media Integration – Open up the so called “walled garden” a bit and share what’s going on in your classes easily over social media. We’ve created not only a means to sign-on using an account from a social media service like Facebook and Twitter, but we are also creating tools to share materials out to these services. Imagine being able to notify colleagues, mentors and others about things inside your course.
Course Structures– Elevate your use of learning technology by choosing from one of 30 structures to organize the materials and activities in your course. We’ve worked with instructional designers and Blackboard clients to develop structures that highlight key educational practices and make online and hybrid learning easy. If you want to make your course more social, more interactive and use Blackboard tools to their full potential look over these structures and let them help you reorganize your course.
Course Themes – We’ve created 50 themes that let you give your course some style. This goes way beyond the old button styles and course menu options. You can now select from our growing library of professional themes to give your course some pizzazz and personality.
Instructor HomePages and Blogs – come visit me at http://jfontaine.coursesites.com/ Here I have my profile, and a few sample classes I’m developing around Building Blocks which I hope to deliver later this year. Get your own CourseSites URL to provide a public gateway to your instruction. From this URL you can link to your current blog, or start a new one using tools we’ve made available.

Keep in mind that what we’ve done with CourseSites is just an example of what’s possible with Blackboard Learn technology. Every customer has access to the open SDK and power of Building Blocks. In less than a year we’ve been able to build these new innovative capabilities for our users with a very small group. As you think about what’s possible on your campus, look at what we’ve done with CourseSites. Imagine how you use these sample principles to create our own unique vision to re-brand and re-imagine your Course Management System / VLE.

Open Education and the Midterms

The US midterm election is today and I wonder what it will mean for Open Education Repositories and Open Textbooks. One interesting scenario would be if Harry Reid loses but the Democrats retain the majority in the Senate. Dick Durban one of the main contenders to succeed Reid in the leadership sponsored S1714 which would fund grants for open and freely distributed textbooks. If you want to see more support in the senate for funding these initiatives then you should cheer educators like Patty Murray (Washington) and Michael Bennet (Colorado). You may also support Joe Sestak running for PA senate. Rep Sestak was on the House committee that did the work on HR 3221 – Section 505 that was to setup grants for the development of open textbooks.

Generally the Republicans have taken a skeptical view of open media like PBS, NPR as well as institutions like the Department of Education. Comments from conservatives regarding S1714 and hr3221 section 505 were very negative, some see it as a plot to enshrine political positions into the textbooks.

On the other hand with private money from the Gates, Hewlett and Melon foundations, perhaps OER and open text books are better off without the heavy hand of the US government. I also fear that just as we’ve seen with K-12 science curriculum standards, more direct involvement by the Feds in production of book may lead to some ugly fights. Imagine the debates while the DOE funds a biology, economics or civics textbook.