Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Alexandria Complex

At the American Historical Association meetings which I'm currently attending I dropped in on a panel discussing whether Google is good for history. Participants at the session identified many problems which Google has yet to redress adequately: the fact that Google’s landing pages don’t disabuse users of what one panelist called “the Alexandria complex” (the hubris to believe that all of the world’s knowledge might be contained in one place), that Google doesn’t clearly identify the limitations and biases that are inherent in online search, and that absent these warnings, Google may breed a level of epistemological trust in users that erodes the healthy skepticism upon which good scholarship depends. By and large I think Brandon Bader, the Googe rep, handled these criticisms gracefully especially in his willingness to acknowledge that he was a little “embarrassed” by the current interface in Google Books. Google might not be as transparent as librarians and academics would like it to be but it’s still playing an important role in democratizing access to knowledge. And while a Google search refracts and bends this knowledge, when used as a complement to other research techniques it’s good for history.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Still Not Dead

The most recent Sakai Executive Brief is out, this time highlighting the formation of a Sakai Product Council chaired by Clay Fenlason, a longstanding contributor to Sakai and perhaps it’s most erudite spokesman. True to form, Clay gave a very engaging keynote at last September’s Australian Sakai Conference which closely follows his article titled "Back to basics: the web, academic values, and Sakai" article. It's opening lines are:

“One could be forgiven for confusing virtual learning environment
(VLE) debates with those of theology….a growing number of voices has
taken up a Nietzschean cry, declaring the VLE dead. What now? What
will take its place, and on what grounds? …..Technologists who labour
in this area are in a period of soul-searching. The forms of VLE we've
known, however useful they have been, now plainly represent an
intermediate stage that will soon be superseded. The world has moved
on, and the form of the VLE must shift with it. Call this shift a
"death" if you like, but we're still left with the business of working
out its consequences.”

Clay is politic in not taking explicit sides in the Not Dead Yet versus the Social Media is Killing the LMS Star debate. But is it hubris to even tacitly suggest that the VLE is dead and that Sakai is poised to move beyond it?

On the one hand, it’s definitely not true. Sakai has many things to be proud of, not least of which is its efforts to re-imagine how the VLE as a CLE can better service the mission(s) of the university. And more so than any other VLE initiative, Sakai is making great efforts to leverage the wisdom of crowds.

On the other hand, Sakai still is playing catch-up in the VLE marketplace. Our own campus pilot and those of campus instructors at other universities have confirmed that there’s still some clunkiness in using Sakai if one tries to use it as a VLE. If in Moodle one can lay out a course in much the same way as one constructs a syllabus, in Sakai this is a much more difficult
proposition. In Lisa Lane’s illuminating essay “Insidious pedagogy:
How course management systems impact teaching
” she levels much the same critique against Blackboard:

"The construction of the course syllabus is a familiar beginning point
for most instructors, yet few CMSs consider this. It would be natural
and useful for novice instructors to see a blank schedule into which
they could create each week’s or unit’s activities, rather than a
selection of pre–set buttons or links. Most professors think in terms
of the semester, and how their pedagogical goals can be achieved
within the context of time, rather than space. Some think in terms of
topics they want to cover. Blackboard/WebCT’s default organization
accepts neither of these approaches in its initial interface. It
forces the instructor to think in terms of content types instead,
breaking the natural structure of the semester, or of a list of
topics. Again, we know that the setup can be customized with relative
ease, by going to the Control Panel and selecting Manage Course Menu,
then using Modify buttons. You could change all the course menu
buttons into “Week 1”, “Week 2”, or organize by topic instead of
content type. But few professors try that, or they assume that they
can’t do it. Blackboard can be highly intimidating to learn, and may
“seriously hinder” choices the faculty member makes while using the
tool [4]. Faculty are led by the interface of a CMS not only because
they do not immediately see an alternative, but because the familiar
signposts (the Syllabus button) imply a single way of completing the
task (upload a document). Only the Moodle system provides a default
setup that looks like a calendar-style syllabus...."

Having taught for multiple semesters over many years in all of these systems, I can say that many of the same challenges that Lane experiences with Blackboard can also be found in Sakai.

When the next major release of Sakai is ready for adoption the course-authoring deficits mentioned above should be resolved. And there are already plenty of positive reviews of Sakai. But the play on Nietzsche’s jeremiad does obscure a very painful deficit that exists between Sakai and the conventional art in the VLE. Until it’s bridged, my bet is that my own school will continue to regard these other VLEs as very much alive.