Open Context: Community Data-sharing and Tagging

by Eric Kansa, Alexandria Archive Institute

opencontexth.jpgThe Alexandria Archive Institute is now “beta-testing” Open Context.

Open Context is a free, open-access online database resource for archaeology and related fields. It is a highly-generalized tool that pools and integrates individual researcher datasets and museum collections. Funding for the development of Open Context came from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Open Context has a variety of demonstration datasets now available for exploration and testing. These include field archaeology contextual records and finds registers, geo-archaeological samples, and a variety of zooarchaeological analyses. We are also adding museum and reference collection datasets. Some projects have rich image collections and narrative material, and others are of primary interest for specialist comparative analyses.

To help make sense of this widely varying body of material, we have developed a user folksonomy system. Individual users can add value to the pooled content by identifying and annotating items of interest using a tagging system. The folksonomy system also enables community members to establish and share meaningful links between items from different projects and collections (even if these projects use different recording systems). We think the folksonomy system can be a powerful tool for semantic data integration.

We believe Open Context represents some significant achievements, but still requires further development. We are working toward interoperability with other systems and developing partnerships to assist in OAI standards compliance and support from institutional repositories. We are also working with the Science Commons to find “some rights reserved” frameworks that create incentives for sharing primary data.

We would also like to see some of this framework incorporated into institutionally-backed digital repository systems. Thus, we are eager to partner with other related initiatives. We already have an established a partnership with the University of Chicago OCHRE project. The data structures underlying Open Context are based on the pioneering efforts this group. Open Context uses a subset of the global schema described in OCHRE’s  “Archaeological Markup Language” (ArchaeoML). Because of this, data imported into Open Context is fully compatible with the OCHRE system. Besides OCHRE, there are several other initiatives looking to create digital resources for archaeology, and we would like to broaden the scope of our collaborations.

Zotero: The Next-Generation Research Tool

by Roy Rosenzweig, George Mason University


Zotero is a free, easy-to-use research tool that helps you gather and organize resources (whether bibliography or the full text of articles), and then lets you to annotate, organize and share the results of your research. It includes the best parts of older reference manager software such as EndNote (like the ability to store full reference information in author, title and publication fields and to export that as formatted references) and the best parts of modern software such as or iTunes (like the ability to sort, tag and search in advanced ways). Using its unique ability to sense when you are viewing a book, article or other resource on the web, Zotero will–on many major research sites–find and automatically save the full reference information for you in the correct fields.

The 1.0 beta release of Zotero already provides advanced functionality for gathering, organizing and scanning your research, as well as basic import/export capability and bibliographic formatting tools. Automatic updates to the software in the fall and winter of 2006-2007 will provide many more citation styles, the ability for Zotero to recognize even more online resources, even better support for importing and exporting entire collections, and integration with Microsoft Word and other word processors. And coming soon, Zotero users will be able to share their collections with other users, collaborate on research projects using Zotero, send their collections to other free web services (such as mapping or translation sites) and receive recommendations and feeds of new resources that might be of interest. In short, over the next year Zotero will expand from an already helpful browser extension into a full-fledged tool for digital research and communications.

Zotero requires Firefox 2.0 and can be downloaded for free from the Zotero website, which also includes full documentation and a forum for discussion.

Digital Image Interview Series

by Jennifer Curran, Academic Commons

As part of the ongoing discussion on the “Use of Digital Images,” Academic Commons will be publishing, over the next few months, a series of interviews with a small sample of those faculty who participated in the digital images project. In our selection of subjects, we have attempted to be as representative as possible of the different disciplines and approaches found in the project. Author David Green has returned to the interview subjects for updates and additional material. We encourage you to add your comments to the interviews and to the report.

Full Report:

Using Digital Images in Teaching and Learning: Perspectives from Liberal Arts Institutions


Interviews (more to come):

Robert Nelson (November 2006)
Robert Lehman Professor, History of Art, Yale University
Robert Nelson studies and teaches medieval art at Yale University. He came to Yale in 2005, after a long and distinguished career at the University of Chicago. It was there that he started teaching with digital images, and he has not looked back. He is co-curator of the exhibition Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai, on display at the Getty Museum through March 4, 2007.

Ann Burke (November 2006)
Associate Professor, Biology, Wesleyan University
Ann Burke teaches evolutionary and developmental biology at Wesleyan University. Her image-intensive classes now also use animations and she looks forward to using 3-D images in the near-future. In 2005, she developed, with the Wesleyan University Learning Object Studio, an animation of the Body Wall Formation of the Chick Embryo, which has provided a useful link between her teaching and research.

Hank Glassman (December 2006)
Assistant Professor, East Asian Studies, Haverford College
Hank Glassman teaches Buddhism, Religion and Gender, East Asian Religions, Japanese Literature, Language, and History. Images have become increasingly important in his teaching on Japanese language, history, and culture and in his research on Japanese religions in the medieval period. He constantly struggles with how best to display images in his classes and how to help students engage them as texts.

Henry Art (March 2007)
Professor, Biology/Environmental Science, Williams College
Henry Art, the Samuel Fessenden Clarke Professor of Biology at Williams College, has been a member of the faculty since 1970. He has taught courses in environmental studies, field botany, ecology and land use planning, through the biology department and the environmental studies program. His research includes long-term ecological studies of the Hopkins Memorial Forest. Innovative use of images has been key to both his teaching and research. In this interview, he is joined by Jonathan Leamon, a member of Williams’s Office for Instructional Technology.

Renaissance Women, Text Encoding and the Digital Humanities: An Interview with Julia Flanders

Julia Flanders is Director of the exemplary Brown University Women Writers Project and Associate Director for Textbase Development at the Brown University Scholarly Technology Group. With those projects and as Editor in Chief of the Digital Humanities Quarterly, due to launch in 2007, Julia is a key figure in humanities computing and text encoding initiatives. Academic Commons recently caught up with her to talk about her various projects.
Academic Commons:  You’ve been involved with the Brown Women Writers Project since 1992. What are the most important developments for WWP in the past several years? What’s ahead long-term for the WWP and projects like it?

Julia Flanders: In a sense, all of the important developments we’ve had in progress lately have come to fruition this year. The project released a new version of Women Writers Online this past summer, with much faster searching and a new interface. We’re now using the Philologic search engine (from the University of Chicago) which provides a lot of very interesting new functionality, particularly things like text analysis tools which we haven’t been able to offer before. Most importantly, since this is open-source XML software, it’s easier than before to experiment with interface ideas; we’ll be launching a “sandbox area” this year in which we can offer some unusual interface tools for people to play with.

This winter, we’re finishing up the WWP’s Guide to Scholarly Text Encoding, which will be published online in 2007; it will provide in-depth guidance for non-technical scholars who want to learn more about text encoding and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), or just understand what it is and why it’s interesting. We also just learned that we’ve received funding from the NEH to offer a two-year series of workshops and seminars on scholarly text encoding, aimed at humanities faculty. This will draw on the Guide and give us an opportunity to reach a wider audience. We’re also pursuing a few other new projects: we’re seeking funding for a project which would explore the implications of providing annotation tools for readers of Women Writers Online. Annotation is a familiar idea but we think that in practice it might take our readers in a number of experimental and challenging directions: for instance, developing curricular materials that are linked directly to the texts, or writing hypertextual critical essays that consist of annotation sequences. There are a number of hard questions to address, particularly concerning issues of peer review and the technical longevity of the annotation system, but I think we need to treat these as challenges rather than obstacles.

Long-term developments for Women Writers Online include experimenting with more ways for readers to see and explore textual pattern, through visualization tools. As text collections scale up, familiar narrative reading processes become harder to apply, at least as the first stage of research; it’s helpful to have ways of seeing the whole collection and grasping its patterns as well as focusing in on individual texts. A lot of interesting work is being done in this area: the NORA project has been developing tools for data mining and visualization, and the TAPoR project in Canada has been creating a portal for text analysis that among other things offers experimental tools that can be used through TAPoR or incorporated into local project interfaces. Some of this work may benefit projects like the WWP directly and some of it may inspire further development; we’d like to take advantage of open-source efforts like these and test them out on the WWP collection.

Academic Commons: What’s your sense of how faculty are using digital resources like WWP in their research? What kinds of changes are happening in their work, and what kind of obstacles are they facing?

Julia Flanders: At the moment, I think they’re using digital collections in much the same way as they use collections of printed books: to find documents they’re interested in and to read them. Searching helps to speed up this process; online access makes it more effortless and exposes readers to a wider range of material. But habits of reading are not yet changing very much.

The biggest obstacle is the granularization of online resources, and the lack of cross-collection analysis functions. This is a problem partly because of funding and intellectual property issues, but also because it is something fundamental about the incunabular stage of electronic publishing we’re still in. Different projects are experimenting–appropriately!–with different kinds of markup, different approaches to representing materials in digital form. Those differences pose challenges for integrated searching, but they also represent important explorations into digital modeling. Tools like the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) are making it increasingly possible to find items across digital collections, but I think the more detailed analysis functions will have to wait until a further stage in the history of electronic publishing.

Academic Commons: As you note, we might see the early electronic editions as a sort of incunabula, a transitional form of text as we move toward something more stable. Is that a reasonable way of seeing the developments in digital texts, and, if so, what’s the most important aspect of the new form of text?

Julia Flanders: We are at an incunabular stage in the emergence of electronic editions, though I don’t think what we’re moving toward is more stable than what we have now. Over the past decade, I think some important fundamental practices have emerged: the use of XML (and probably some form of TEI) for the transcriptions of the text; the use of page images, linked to those transcriptions, to provide additional information; and, depending on the kind of edition, the printing of base texts with several parallel versions aligned together, providing a single text with variant readings encoded in the text stream.

Using this basic framework, a great many different surfaces can be produced, and I think that’s where you now see the greatest variation: in the behavior of the interface, the ways readers are invited to prod at the text, the kinds of information they are invited to manipulate or inspect. There’s still experimentation and research going on with respect to what’s under the hood (i.e. the encoding of the text), but I think the basic ideas there are pretty solid.

Academic Commons: You’ve been offering Text Encoding Initiative workshops for faculty. If I’m a humanities professor in a liberal arts college why might I want to learn this stuff? How is familiarity with text encoding standards–a somewhat arcane subject, we might agree–going to change my scholarship and teaching unless I’m heavily invested in preserving old texts?

Julia Flanders: I think there are a number of reasons why people take these workshops. It used to be that we saw faculty who had gotten involved in a digital project–either as a project advisor, or as the founder or editor–and wanted to understand how the encoding worked. For faculty in this position, there’s a clear motivation, even if they aren’t planning to do any of the encoding themselves: the editorial decisions they make about how the text will be represented all require some understanding of encoding (not at the technical level but at the conceptual level).

But more recently, we have started to see participants who have no particular project in hand but simply want to understand text encoding because it is methodologically so central to modern editing and, by extension, to modern textual scholarship. I doubt they would describe themselves as being interested in “text encoding standards” any more than they would have described themselves fifty years ago as being interested in “editing standards.” What they want to know–and what these workshops emphasize–is how text encoding works as a representational system: what it lets you say about texts, what assumptions it makes about how texts work, how it fits in with current scholarly practices. Given how many digital resources now are based on XML-encoded texts, some understanding of these technologies and methods is as important as understanding scholarly editing (at a basic level) would be for someone using a scholarly edition in their research. Even faculty who have no special interest in preserving old texts nonetheless use these materials in research and teaching: digital resources like ProQuest’s Literature Online and Early English Books Online collections are in some ways the modern equivalent of the Norton Anthology, the Oxford Classics and similar print sources. Faculty can’t instill a critical approach to texts in their students if they have no idea how the very sources they’re using are produced.

Academic Commons: You’re the Editor in Chief of the new Digital Humanities Quarterly. What’s the schedule for DHQ and what do you hope to accomplish?

Julia Flanders: DHQ will launch in 2007. What we’d like to accomplish is a gradual but persistent experimentation with the scholarly journal form: publishing peer-reviewed, high-quality articles on digital humanities, while offering a new range of ways to read the field and explore connections between articles. We’re also planning to offer some additional publication modes: editorials, reviews, blog entries, and interactive media pieces, plus the opportunity for reader commentary and discussion, so that the journal can represent the same kind of intellectual give-and-take that makes conferences so engaging. What will be less visible, but perhaps will have a greater impact over the long term, are some of the ways we hope to challenge traditional journal publishing assumptions. For instance, authors will retain ownership of materials published in DHQ. The journal will also be open-access, to help expose the field of digital humanities research to a broader audience. We’re hoping, above all, that the journal will help foster greater cross-pollination between digital humanities and the traditional humanities disciplines.

You.Niversity? A Review of Reconstructions Special Issue: “Theories/Practices of Blogging”

by Kevin Wiliarty, Wesleyan University

You.Niversity? A Review of Reconstruction’s Special Issue: “Theories/Practices of Blogging

At a recent workshop on academic applications of Web 2.0 technologies, NITLE’s Bryan Alexander acknowledged that one of the challenges for the converted is to help their peers get past the often playfully silly names associated with the tools in question: “Blogs? Wikis? Are you serious?” The point is not insignificant. I remember my own initial reactions to these terms, and I read the wariness in the faces of the faculty I now advise on matters of academic computing. Scholars often correctly intuit that they are not the target demographic for Web 2.0. Negative press only reinforces that visceral inclination. Most academics presumably know the Wikipedia better for its vulnerabilities and pitfalls than for its real or potential strengths, and blogging is perceived, even by some of its scholarly practitioners, as extraprofessional, if not outright “neurotic or masturbatory” (Benton 2006).

Intended end-user or not, higher education stands to benefit greatly from technologies that significantly enrich our information infrastructure. We are only beginning to appreciate how Web 2.0 can facilitate or enhance familiar scholarly and pedagogical endeavors, not least of all by helping us to manage the information glut for which Web 2.0 is, itself, partly responsible. We sense, if vaguely, that these new tools will change some of our ways of working, perhaps dramatically. For good or ill, it has already begun, and even adherents of the cause generally recognize the need for attention to a number of issues: peer review, professionalism, promotion, and intellectual property, to mention only a few.

Amid the shifting technological sands, the recent special issue (vol. 6, no. 4, 2006) of the freely available, online, peer-reviewed, academic quarterly Reconstruction offers a welcome antidote to the speculation and scuttlebutt. Titled “Theories/Practices of Blogging,” the issue tackles a wide range of topics using disparate methodologies. Academic blogging features prominently (see Michael Benton’s introductory “Thoughts on Blogging by a Poorly Masked Academic,” Craig Saper’s “Blogademia,” Lilia Efimova’s “Two papers, me in between,” and to a lesser extent Tama Leaver’s “Blogging Everyday Life“). In closely allied projects, the multi-authored “Webfestschrift for Wealth Bondage/The Happy Tutor” celebrates blogging as a literary enterprise, while Erica Johnson’s “Democracy Defended: Polibloggers and the Political Press in America” examines blogging’s relationship to still another form of professional writing: journalism.

Further contributions to the issue address questions of blogging and identity in international contexts (see Carmel L. Vaisman’s “Design and Play: Weblog Genres of Adolescent Girls in Israel,” David Sasaki’s “Identity and Credibility in the Global Blogosphere,” and Lauren Elkin’s “Blogging and (Expatriate) Identity“). The expatriate blogger Esther Herman’s beautifully written “My Life in the Panopticon: Blogging From Iran” serves as a highly personalized foil for the more analytical pieces.

True to the spirit of blogging, perhaps, the contributions are diverse and international. They include theoretical and empirical analyses alongside a number of ‘primary’ sources, i.e. bloggers’ own reflections on blogging. This one-two punch provides ammunition for the advocate and manna for the believer. As befits a publication whose subtitle reads “Studies in Contemporary Culture,” all of the offerings address the intersections of technology and culture. The theoretical papers cover thinkers from Habermas (see Anna Notaro on “The Lo(n)g Revolution: The Blogosphere as an Alternative Public Sphere?“) to de Certeau (see Leaver) to Ong, Lakoff, and Goffman (see danah boyd’s “A Blogger’s Blog: Exploring the Definition of a Medium,” a piece whose theoretical insights I find particularly nuanced and enlightening).

A theme that informs most of the pieces is a distinction between blogs as a form of technology and blogging as a form of cultural activity. Not surprisingly, given the focus of the publication, the emphasis is generally on the latter. A few of the authors point out that blogs need not be focused on individual expression (political, scholarly, or otherwise), but still the emphasis of the issue is on highly personal, completely accessible blogs. The topic that the editors put to the blogosphere for comment was “Why I blog.” The choice of the singular pronoun is telling.

From the standpoint of academic technology, however, I cannot help but suspect that some of the most effective usage of blogs is restricted, practical, and collaborative rather than public, expressive, and individual. Researchers collaborating from different institutions, for example, might well find a shared blog with built-in archiving and navigation a more convenient way to document their progress than, say, flurries of emails. There are plenty of reasons to put work on a server other than wanting to share it indiscriminately with the world. More practical uses of blogs do not get much attention, though, not even in diverse collections like the volume under review. Practical blogging is less controversial, and from a methodological perspective, it is also harder to research what is being done with private or restricted blogs, or even how many there are, or who has them.

For now, at any rate, the stereotype of blogging as individual public expression will probably continue to dominate in the public perception. The volume under review gives us a number of reasons to take professional and scholarly interest in individual public blogging, but those of us working to promote the less obvious uses of blogging technology still have a long way to go before our colleagues feel comfortable entrusting their ‘serious’ content to what is still widely perceived as a ‘frivolous’ medium.

Using Digital Images in Teaching and Learning: Perspectives from Liberal Arts Institutions

by David Green, Knowledge Culture

The following study, “Using Digital Images in Teaching and Learning,” was commissioned by Wesleyan University in collaboration with the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE).

The study focuses on the pedagogical implications of the widespread use of the digital format. However, while changes in the teaching-learning dynamic and the teacher-student relationship were at the core of the study, related issues concerning supply, support and infrastructure rapidly became part of its fabric. These topics include the quality of image resources, image functionality, management, deployment and the skills required for optimum use (digital and image “literacies”).

This report is rooted in faculty experience in “going digital,” as shown in four hundred survey responses and three hundred individual interviews with faculty and some staff at 33 colleges and universities: 31 liberal arts colleges together with Harvard and Yale Universities. Two-thirds of the survey respondents worked in the arts and humanities, 27% in the sciences and 12% in the social sciences. These faculty were self-selected and mostly convinced of the digital promise of abundant, fluid resources. They wanted to communicate both their enthusiasm for their endeavor and their frustration at the pace and quality of their transition to teaching with this new format.

Full Report (1.1 mb .pdf)

Executive Summary (.4 mb .pdf)

Recommendations (<.1 mb .pdf)

As part of an ongoing conversation around the report, Academic Commons is publishing a selection of interviews with faculty who participated in this project.

Digital Image Interview Series

In addition, we have established a space for readers to interact with the author David Green, and with one another.

Image Project  Wiki

The Horizon Report: A NERCOMP SIG Event

by Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Simmons College

This NERCOMP SIG event took place on May 2, 2006 at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

What is The Horizon Report?The day-to-day challenge of teaching and learning with technology is overwhelming–it can be challenging to look toward the horizon, envision possibilities and plan for the future. For those of us in need of renewal and inspiration there is The Horizon Report, a publication developed by the New Media Consortium in collaboration with the Educause Learning Initiative (ELI). The purpose of the report, published on an annual basis since 2004, is to “identify and describe emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning or creative expression within higher education.”

Each year the Horizon Project’s Advisory Board considers dozens of emerging technologies, winnowing the list down to six areas considered most likely to be significant within higher education in the next one to five years. In addition to identifying specific “technologies to watch,” the Board also notes key trends and critical challenges affecting teaching, learning and creativity.

The following technologies are featured in the featured in the 2006 report:

  • Social Computing
  • Personal Broadcasting
  • The Phones in Their Pockets
  • Educational Gaming
  • Augmented Reality and Enhanced Visualization
  • Context-Aware Environments and Devices

On May 2, 2006, Horizon Project Advisory Board members Phil Long, Cyprien Lomas and Bryan Alexander convened a NERCOMP SIG during which they discussed four of of these technologies: Social Computing, Personal Broadcasting, The Phones in Their Pockets and Educational Gaming.

NOTE: The SIG event included hands-on demonstrations and exercises with RSS, social tagging and collaborative authoring with wikis. However, this write-up focuses on themes that emerged during presentations, questions posed by SIG participants and examples of emerging technologies at use in higher education. In keeping with the emerging nature of the technologies discussed, the SIG presentations were adapted on-the-fly to address participant questions and therefore sessions merged into a fluid day-long experience. Likewise, the summary that follows is presented as a retrospective, not as a write-up of discrete presentations.

Event Blog How Does One Keep Abreast of Emerging Technologies?Emerging technologies are exciting and invigorating, but difficult to identify and assess because they are, by definition, emerging. Phil Long began by posing the following question: How do you track and find promising new developments in technology? Strategies suggested by the group included the following:

  • Talk with kids
  • Participate in listserv discussions (especially those popular with 18-26 year-olds)
  • Follow up on requests from users for oddball things
  • Read widely (for example, Business Week article on Second Life, Newsweek article on Web 2.0 and a recent Web 2.0 review in The Economist)
  • Subscribe to RSS feeds (for example, Bryan mentioned Educause blogs, and blogs produced by library specialists)
  • Seek out others outside your field (for example, Cyprien keeps in touch with academic colleagues who are cell biologists)
  • Look outside the U.S. (for example, LAMS and CAUDIT in Australia)

In addition to the challenge of identifying promising technologies, there is also the problem of language. One of the goals for the Horizon Report SIG is to develop a common vocabulary. Emerging technologies often have a short half life, but issues and challenges persist. What you learn about innovation in one sector may be equally relevant in another. A shared vocabulary helps us articulate common themes across technologies, academic fields, etc.

The definition of what constitutes “emerging” varies depending on the interests and prior experience of the people with whom you are speaking. In addition, it can be difficult to understand a person’s level of involvement. For example, when asked, “Are you doing podcasting?” what does an affirmative response mean? Does it mean you listen to podcasts, support people who are producing podcasts or podcast your own material?

In preparation for the NERCOMP SIG, the workshop facilitators administered a pre-conference survey to registrants, to assess participant involvement and interest in emerging technologies.

Highlights of Survey Results:

  • 54% have started using IM/Chat.
  • 100% self-identify as email power-users.
  • 87% said they would be bringing a laptop with them to the session.
  • 73.9% do not have a blog.
  • Most take wireless for granted and RSS is almost like electricity (everybody needs it, but nobody wants to talk about how it works).
  • Respondents had less familiarity/experience with tagging, social bookmarking, flickr, videoblogging, MMOG.
  • Things the group said were of most interest to them included social computing, collaboration.
  • Things that were less interesting to the group included geo-tagging and mobility.

Phil is surprised that there is not more interest in geo-tagging. He provided the following interesting examples of geo-tagging in use: “My Space”-type content can be paired with geo-tags and cell phones (to alert you when buddies are nearby); “crush lists” can be combined with geo-tagging to track the location of people on your list; finally, in higher education, Stanford University students can get more information about campus buildings from their cellphones.

Question: How accurate is the geolocation? Could you track two trees 10 ft apart?

Answer: No, not with cellphone technology–that is only accurate within a few blocks. However, Ispots (a tool in use at MIT) can track a person’s IP address and is accurate to within feet.

The group was asked what items they wish would be added to the survey. Responses included:

  • ePortfolios
  • Text messaging
  • Real time tools (e.g., video conferencing, video chat, etc.)
  • Real time data gathering (e.g., survey monkey)
  • Virtualization (embedded storage) that is device-agnostic
  • VOIP connected to podcasting (e.g., Skypecasting)

What Key Trends Are Identified In The 2006 Horizon Report?Phil Long discussed the following key trends identified in the 2006 report:

  • Dynamic creation and social tools and processes are becoming more widespread and accepted.
  • Mobile and personal technology is increasingly being viewed as a delivery platform for services of all kinds.
  • Consumers are increasingly expecting individualized services, tools and experiences, and open access to media, knowledge, information and learning.
  • Collaboration is increasingly seen as critical across the range of educational activities, including intra- and inter-institutional activities of any size or scope.

What Challenges Are Presented By Emerging Technologies?

  • Peer review and other academic processes, such as promotion and tenure reviews, increasingly do not reflect the ways in which scholarship actually is conducted. Academic rewards are increasingly decoupled from, and out of step with, the practice of scholarship. As faculty scholarship extends into the digital realm, roles and systems for rewards will need to be renegotiated.
  • Information literacy should not be considered to be a given, even among “Net-Gen” students. Tool awareness does not necessarily translate into using the tools in a thoughtful way.
  • Intellectual property concerns and the management of digital rights and assets continue to loom as largely unaddressed issues.
  • The typical approach of experimentally deploying new technologies on campuses does not include processes to quickly scale them up to broad usage when they work; in fact, this approach often creates its own obstacles to full deployment.
  • The phenomenon of technological “churn” is bringing new kinds of support challenges. For example, this SIG would morph into a completely different workshop three months from now due to rapid changes in technology.

21st Century Literacies for Emerging Technologies: With emerging technologies come new forms of literacy. On the one hand, emerging technologies make it easier to create and disseminate sophisticated multimedia offerings. However, authors need to understand that emerging technologies constitute new genres of communication. It is important to know the strengths, limitations and conventions of the medium through which you are communicating.

For example, it’s not particularly helpful for a professor to videotape a lecture and post it, unedited and without chapter markers, online. That is pouring proverbial old wine into new skins. Instead, 21stcentury literacies challenge us to reconceptualize the products of faculty and student work. A literate person’s “publication” takes advantage of the capabilities (and transcends the limitations) of the digital medium in which it is authored.

Students are surrounded by an array of user-friendly authoring tools that extend traditional notions of “authorship” to include processes typically associated with orchestration or even remixing. Spaces for learning and authorship include images, words, motion and sound. How does one communicate effectively with this rich set of representational tools? The nonlinear nature of emerging media makes it imperative for students to understand things like user interface and organization of data. For more information, see the New Media Consortium’s New Media Literacy & Learning Initiative.

What’s the Purpose of The Horizon Report? How Can I Use It On My Campus?
According to Phil Long, The Horizon Report is designed for use by boards, advisory groups, in strategic planning committees, etc. If you get it into the hands of key people on campus, it can be used as a mechanism to move certain technologies from pilot to accepted campus use. Given the rapid rate of change in emerging technologies, the goal of The Horizon Report is to help staff, faculty and administrators in higher education make informed decisions.

Examples: Social ComputingAccording to Phil, blogging can be difficult to get excited about–it’s like getting excited about word processing. But blogging is simple to do and it is public in a way that word processing is not. And because blogs are simple, they can be used in innovative ways to get students to think differently about their work.

Blogs are an increasingly-mainstream offering at institutions of higher education. Examples include the MIT project “blogging and metacognition.” Incoming students are asked to blog about courses in which they are successfull, as well as those in which they are having trouble, and then to look for patterns and consider the differences. This helps them to identify and address recurring first-year problems, such as not devoting enough time to preparation. This process also encourages first-year students to take responsibility for improving their learning.

It is interesting to note the impact of blogging on the way that people write. Because blogs involve numerous posts, authors need to get to the point as soon as possible if they want to retain their reader’s attention. In addition, good blog entry titles include terms relevant to search engines. The first paragraph often reads like an abstract, as opposed to a thesis that unfolds gradually.

Web 2.0, library 2.0 terms have stuck. The concept of “micro content” is one example–pieces of content being moved around, smaller pieces, more distributed, more dynamic, drawn from a range of other places.

Audience Question: Why is blogging catching on now? And why is this so hot when we have had threaded discussions for years?

Answer: Blogging isn’t in the same category as a bulletin boards. Bulletin boards are for group discussion, blogs are personal. So, from the perspective of an educator, blogs are better for fostering metacognition than bulletin boards because they encourage the student to exercise a personal voice. One other difference is that every post in a blog has a unique state URL–so it can be accessible and cross-linked in ways that are not possible with a bulletin board.

Audience Question: Who reads all these first-year students’ blogs?

Answer: The other students. Additional possibilities include assistant instructors and graduate students.

Audience Question: And what are they expected to do with them?

Answer: Students were asked to read others’ blogs and make some connection or observation between their peers’ posts and their own writings. Then they were asked to return to their own blogs and write about what it takes to succeed as a college student.

Audience Question: Did it work?

Answer: Faculty are very happy with the increase in public writing that is happening on campus. The challenge is in the assignment set-up, the instructional design. And students often lose awareness of the fact that this is public writing and that it will persist.

Audience Question: Why not use a course management system for this kind of assignment?

Answer: Most course management systems (for example, Blackboard) teach students totally different habits of information. Course content is set up in separate silos so that it’s difficult to make connections across the curriculum. It’s a question of what pedagogical approach you want to embrace.

With social software, both faculty and students are now posting course materials and coursework all over the Web. This raises interesting issues–for example, how much of the course materials and student work is on a platform over which the institution has no control?  In addition, there is the issue of students’ intellectual property–if they aren’t made cognizant of the public nature of these tools, students can be giving away their work without knowing it. At what point does this become such an issue that you think you need for it to be hosted on campus? These questions need to be addressed.

Finally, there is the challenge of assessing the features, capabilities and quality of these emerging tools. Edutools compares course management systems and ePortfolios, but there is no analogous forum for evaluating and comparing emerging technologies. However, Wikipedia can be a useful place to search for this type of information.

Audience Question: What costs are associated with implementing these technologies?

Answer: Costs are somewhat tricky to assess. For example, consider the cost of RSS. It feels like it’s costless because it’s a standard–you can set up an RSS feed on your site for free. In theory, it could lead to real additional costs if you have a popular RSS feed.

On the other hand, in assessing costs, you need to consider whether you plan to be a consumer of the technology or whether you plan to use these technologies to create and disseminate content. The associated costs depend on the use scenario–passive or active use.

Benefits are, of course, the other side of the cost/benefit equation. In the book How People Learn, effective learning is described as having three characteristics:

  • Ownership (Student Created)
  • Social (Learner Choices)
  • Active (Mobile)

Podcasting used in conjunction with blogs, for example, achieves all three of these criteria. So in this respect benefits may well outweigh the costs.

Links To Check OutTechnorati
http://memeorandum.comBaghdad Burning


Pepys Diary
(compare blogs with the daily posts of this 17th century diarist)

Crooked Timber
(aggregator of faculty blogs)

Dr. B’s Blog
(example of blog that integrates teaching and research)

Other Ideas for Using Social Software in Higher Education: Technorati allows users to search a database of blogs. Results are arranged chronologically. This is called “searching the live Web” because items that are returned in search results may have been posted only minutes ago. Some argue that Google is the “historical” Web because new pages need to be up for a certain amount of time before they show up in this search engine’s results.

Consider this learning scenario: Students use Technorati to search the term “Iraq,” seeking out different perspectives on the topic. Or perhaps they use, a tool that aggregates news stories, pairing the stories with blog discussions. Another possibility would be to compare Baghdad Burning, a blog posted by an woman in Iraq, with “official” Iraqi news publications. These classroom ideas could be used for an investigation of reader response, for a discussion of situational ethics, etc.

About Social Bookmarking: When you bookmark a website in your browser, that information is bound to particular software on a particular machine. But “social bookmarking” externalizes bookmarks onto the Web so that your list can be shared, annotated and “tagged” (to make large collections of bookmarks searchable). One example is This online software adds a “post to delicious” button to your browser.

A note about tagging: From the perspective of many librarians and scholars of information science, controlled language is central to the categorization of information. But social tagging involves a democratic process for categorization–a process of sifting–through which the most-often-used terms float to the top.

These populist schemas for categorization are described as “Folksonomies” (a term reportedly coined by Thomas Vander Wal). In social bookmarking, tags can be displayed in a “cloud”–words presented in a cluster, with the size and boldness of a tag indicating its frequency of use. Tag clouds can be viewed from a number of perspectives–your perspective, all users’ perspectives, etc. In this way, tagging produces a community-based, non-constrained vocabulary (a folksonomy).

How can this be useful from a teaching perspective? For example, students can develop their own lists (and include a class tag number), describing WHY the items they are tagging are interesting to them. Then the tag cloud can be used to present students with the aggregate “class perspective” on the topic. Social bookmarking also provides a means for tracking how a reference became popular–providing a social index of others who thought it was important (and with that index comes opportunities for collaboration).

If you follow a group or an individual’s tag cloud, you can learn a great deal about patterns of perception. For example, one art museum asked visitors to tag its paintings. The PennTags Project at the University of Pennsylvania invites library visitors to tag books, then compare the resulting tag cloud with the official categories for library classification.

Note that there is a page for the Horizon Report.

Social bookmarking is not limited to text. Flickr is a service that allows users to upload, tag and share photos. A number of uses relevant to higher education come to mind. For example, Cyprien uses flickr to have people document their learning spaces. After uploading photos of campus learning spaces, users can tag them and note what features make these spaces conducive to learning.

You can also add a note to a portion of the image to annotate it. In one example displayed during the workshop, a set of X-rays was annotated to illustrate the visual process of diagnostics. This type of social bookmarking is useful for any discipline in which the subject matter is visual–for example, annotating botanical images.

Participant Question: How do you know if the images and the annotations are credible?

Answer: Content on the Web–or anywhere else, for that matter–isn’t always credible. Instead of only presenting credible sources to our students, it’s important to equip them with the ability to discern the credibility of a source. For example, you could examine the profile of the person who made the post, then look for other evidence that this person has relevant expertise, knowledge or experience.

Assessing validity is one of the most important skills to teach students–they need to learn what they can rely on. Most of these sites provide you with a learning opportunity to help students determine what is valid, what constitutes authority. We need to help students cultivate a healthy skepticism.

Examples: Personal BroadcastingPersonal broadcasting presents many advantages. Content can be broken down into smaller, more digestible parts. These media can be downloaded onto mobile devices, allowing listeners and viewers to “time shift” (watch/listen to the media at a time that is convenient to the user, or perhaps review the file multiple times).

Digital Storytelling: The concept of “digital storytelling” grew out of experimental theater. The idea is to involve ordinary people in the making of videos. For more information, see the Center for Digital Storytelling’s website, which includes a downloadable workshop manual.

The digital storytelling movement is predominantly personal–people develop their own stories. Digital stories have become increasingly popular as bandwidth has increased.

At Middlebury the process was adapted for non-personal educational uses. Digital Storytelling is one of the most popular workshops on campus. For more information, see Barbara Ganley’s work on “Digital Storytelling in Higher Education” and an accompanying digital story (in Quicktime format).

Other Examples of Personal Broadcasting in Higher Education: Personal broadcasting makes it possible to distribute alternate (other-than-official) perspectives of a given topic. For example, in the ArtMobs project, museum goers generate their own podcast tours of exhibits.

Ohio University uses video blogs (vlogs) to distribute Ask the Techies episodes, “a weekly video podcast explaining the latest in cool technology.”

The world of everything on video is a pretty diverse world; it is rich, but overwhelming, because it is more difficult to search video than it is to search text. But when digital video is disseminated in the context of vlogs and other forms of social software, it is becoming possible to rate, tag, sift and subscribe–making the process of finding gold nuggets easier.

Intellectual Property in an Era of Personal Broadcasting: If you examine popular sites like YouTube and Google Video, you will realize that personal productions often involve rampant copyright violation. This opens a whole can of worms for copyright infringement, especially regarding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA).

The Creative Commons is a group formed to try get around constraints of copyright, to enable legal sharing and reuse. Your work is, by default, copyrighted whether you want it to be or not–others can be sued on your behalf. So The Creative Commons is a means for helping authors to assign broader rights than those that are the default. It’s a simple syntax you can use to indicate your choice: to allow commercial uses of your work, allow modifications of your work, etc. You enter information about the jurisdiction (countries of use), format of work, etc., then the site generates a “license” code that you can embed on a page or within a work to indicate the rights that you want to claim.

Phil Long encourages participants to use the Creative Commons, and to encourage others to use it. It is important to be explicit and to take responsibility for communicating to people what your wishes are. It’s also important for faculty to include a discussion about copyright and to encourage students to be proactive about registering their work through the Creative Commons.

Participant Question: What about collaborative work?

Answer: They don’t know if The Creative Commons provides a mechanism for that yet. However, classes that involve collaborative work should include negotiation about how that work will be shared with others outside the class. It’s an opportunity for students to debate the issues from an author’s perspective, working together to clarify expectations and ground rules.

The Impact of New Media on Content: Cyprien offered a few caveats to those who want to experiment with podcasting. Podcasts have a reputation of being easy to produce. While this can be true, it’s also important to know that you can’t simply record a lecture, place it online and expect the result to be successful.

Just as blogs are influencing conventions of writing (including keywords in titles, placing critical aspects of the argument up front), podcasting and other forms of personal broadcasting are influencing conventions of online broadcasts.

As opposed to beginning a piece with a long preamble, successful podcasts tend to begin with information designed to bring the listener/viewer on board quickly. “Enhanced podcasts” divide long pieces up into chapters to that listeners can skip directly to a specific place within the podcast. Sections can be tagged with visuals–representative icons–in the same way that DVD chapters are represented on a DVD menu.

Finally, as faculty and students listen to recordings of their voices, they may be critical of themselves. It can take time to become relaxed and develop confidence in one’s broadcast voice. In addition, people may want to edit their recordings, to delete false starts and other things that they feel are undesirable. But editing audio and video takes time–it also requires additional software, such as Garage Band.

Examples: Phones in their PocketsConsider the following scenario: While studying abroad, a student takes pictures with her cell phone. Because of the cell phone’s satellite triangulation, it is possible to geocode the image, noting the latitude and longitude in which the image was created. In addition, the student can use the cell phone to record audio, noting thoughts and impressions. Using an online tool like Stanford’s BuddyBuzz, articles and other content are automatically delivered to her phone. In addition, she can share and receive notes from her peers, even those who are also studying abroad that semester.

Mobile technology is changing the way that media are produced. For example, some items such as bullet holes on shoot-em-up television shows are being made larger so that they will be visible when the show is viewed on an iPod. Likewise, we in higher education would be wise to consider the methods that we use to produce media, ensuring that educational media will make the transition into mobile technology without having to be re-produced.

As an example of “phones in their pockets,” students can download lessons to learn Chinese via cellphone. Many initiatives like this involve creative commons licensing and distribution. For example, Connexions is a site developed by faculty at Rice University, designed to facilitate the sharing of course modules and other scholarly works. Likewise, iCampus is an MIT-sponsored project that disseminates resources and tools.

Participant Question: What about the cost of cell phones?

Answer: First, ask yourself why is it worth it to you to pump money into your cell phone. It provides us with a means for being connected at a time when people are increasingly geographically dispersed.

The United States is behind on innovative use of cell phones, in part because our pricing structure differs from those of other countries. Text messaging is expensive in the U.S., whereas conversational minutes are relatively inexpensive. Outside the U.S., the opposite is true.

Examples: Educational GamingA recent publication of the Harvard Business School, Got Game, argues that gaming is the one experience that today’s students have in common. Gaming is changing how students behave and how they respond to the world around them (including formal learning situations).

Games represent an opportunity to gain experiential understanding of a given topic or idea. They are particularly good for addressing a range of learning styles that are often overlooked in higher education: spatial, social, kinesic, etc. For example, “The Sims” allows users to create simulated people and communities, playing out social interactions that would not be feasible (or perhaps even desirable) face-to-face. By recording a Sims Game, users can create a video of their creation and broadcast it to others.

Other examples include:

  • The Croquet Project, an open source tool designed to support development of 3D multi-user online applications;
  • The Topiary Project, developed at Berkeley, allows users to model the location of people, places and things.

Games can also extend the player’s experience beyond national boundaries. In online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, literally millions of players are enrolled and participating at the same time. This fall NASA is releasing an online game in which players will experience remote access to Mars. A section of NASA’s website is already devoted to space science games. Likewise, the America’s Army (AA), developed with tax dollars and distributed for free by the U.S. government as a public relations tool, is an online multiplayer game that allows participants to “experience” the Iraqi war firsthand. AA also serves as a recruiting tool, linking to official military sites. This highlights the importance of equipping students with the ability to take a critical and reflective stance on the things that they are learning (both overt and subliminal) in online games.

AfterwordAt one point during the day, it was noted that “this SIG would morph into a completely different workshop three months from now due to rapid changes in technology.” There is a certain irony to the fact that this report is reaching readers more than five months after the event. In intervening months, YouTube was acquired by Google, the MacArthur Foundation pledged $50 million to “build the emerging field of digital media and learning,” and Blackboard’s worrisome course management patents have come to light. Perhaps it’s time for another Horizon SIG event?

Assessing Learning Objects: The Importance of Values, Purpose and Design

by Diane J. Goldsmith, Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium

While recent debate has swirled around the internet as to whether learning objects are in fact “dead” (Wiley 2006; Norman 2006; Downes 2006), learning object repositories continue to grow and interest is still high. So it is important to consider how to assess such projects. This article is designed to demonstrate how to apply some principles of assessment to projects and programs engaged in the development of learning objects.

A learning object is generally defined as a resource which supports learning, which is granular or self-contained, and which can be reused. Further, most definitions, but not all, assert that learning objects must be digital and capable of being easily searchable (having metadata tags). The promise of learning objects is commonly described as that of “building it once and using it many times,” either within an institution or globally.

Carol Twigg, a well-known advocate for the use of technology in education, had this criticism of learning objects in an interview printed in Educause Review. It is useful in that it sheds light on some of the issues related to assessment.

MERLOT claims to have 7,000 or so learning objects in a database. But if these learning objects haven’t been evaluated in terms of whether or not they increase student learning, you then just have 7,000 sort of mildly interesting things collected in a database.” Carol Twigg (Veronikas and Shaughnessy 2006)

I don’t believe Twigg’s comments about learning objects were directed at MERLOT specifically, but rather at any repository of learning objects. And while it contains some truths, her critique has some problems. The first is the notion of “increasing” learning. Carol Twigg has been a strong proponent of holding online education to the same standard as on-ground education. Do online learning objects always have to be “better,” or can they be just as good, but serve some other purpose, such as saving money?

The Role of Values and Purpose in LO Assessment

This question emphasizes the fact that all assessment is values-driven. All assessment exists within a context–whether something is successful or not depends on whether you can show that it meets or exceeds your expectations in your particular context. If your only context is “increased learning” then that may be your only standard for assessment. But learning objects don’t exist in a vacuum. Most learning objects are deployed by faculty, often in a variety of situations, and therefore, have a variety of outcomes depending on how they are used. A simulation may be used to help students learn a series of steps (memorization), analyze the steps, or create a similar simulation. All of those would be reasonable outcomes not necessarily built into the object itself, but designed by the instructor or student using it.

There are other facets to learning objects that must be taken into consideration. Maybe they increase student learning, but are very expensive to implement.  Maybe they can help standardize content, but faculty are extremely opposed to such standardization. Maybe it is a wonderful object, but it is difficult to use. It’s important when thinking about assessment to consider what values are important and in what context the object will be used.

Of course, we aren’t going to spend lots of time and money on learning objects unless they really do help students learn. So it makes sense to look at AAHE’s principles of assessment for student learning (Astin et al, 1992), many of which, I believe, can be adopted for learning objects.

  1. The assessment of student learning begins with educational values.
  2. Assessment is most effective when it reflects an understanding of learning as multidimensional, integrated, and revealed in performance over time.
  3. Assessment works best when the programs it seeks to improve have clear, explicitly stated purposes.
  4. Assessment requires attention to outcomes but also and equally to the experiences that lead to those outcomes.
  5. Assessment works best when it is ongoing not episodic.
  6. Assessment fosters wider improvement when representatives from across the educational community are involved.
  7. Assessment makes a difference when it begins with issues of use and illuminates questions that people really care about.
  8. Assessment is most likely to lead to improvement when it is part of a larger set of conditions that promote change.
  9. Through assessment, educators meet responsibilities to students and to the public.

Here again there is an emphasis on values. Assessment is not possible without articulating these values. Good assessment is multi-dimensional, and since learning objects have a multi-dimensional aspect to them–student learning, how they are used, cost, whether they are easily re-usable, whether they are granular–it makes sense for your assessment to include as many of these aspects as are relevant and as fit into the goals you have set.

Developing learning objects requires the involvement of many different individuals–faculty and content experts, IT, learning developers, and of course, students. Therefore, all need to be involved in any process of assessment. The decisions about how learning objects will be deployed should shape your assessment strategy.

Assessment is ongoing. Assessment includes both outcomes and the experiences of getting to those outcomes. Here, issues like ease of use and cost, as well as the students’ and faculty’s experiences, are relevant. A one-time assessment isn’t as helpful as an assessment that begins when you start the development process and continues several years into implementation. Obviously, how important this is depends on the time and resources you are putting into development. Ultimately, assessment is about improvement. While a summative assessment is important, formative assessment throughout the process allows for change and improvement during development.

Questions to Ask in the Development of LO Assessment

There are a set of basic questions, who, why, how, when and what, that can provide a framework for your assessment process.

Ask first, who is interested in learning objects and this development process? Who are the stakeholders? Who is driving the use of learning objects? To whom will you have to prove you are successful? Are any of these folks “opponents?” What sort of evidence will you need to make them allies?

Secondly, why do they want learning objects, or a particular learning object? What values will they use to judge these objects? What are their expectations? What level of evidence do they need to be convinced that this project/object is “successful?” This important consideration depends on the learning object itself. If the learning object is a one-million-dollar chemistry lab simulation, then the values by which it is assessed to justify that expenditure–student learning, cost savings, increased safety–may be different than a repository created by faculty as part of their normal course development.

Next, which assessment methods are most appropriate? It is essential to use methods that your audience understands. A quick story which illustrates this involves an Institutional Researcher who did a wonderful study of retention. He used a fairly sophisticated statistical analysis called “path analysis.” Two years later, he re-did the study adding some variables, and he used multiple regression for his analysis. As he explained, even though path analysis probably was a more robust method of understanding retention, his administrators–the people he had to convince to use his analysis to create policy “didn’t trust it.” They understood or, at least, had heard of multiple regression. The lesson is, make sure you are assessing what the decision makers want assessed and that you are using methods they will accept as trustworthy. Keeping that lesson in mind, decide how you will collect the evidence you think is necessary. You have to factor in how much time and money you have for assessment. One neat thing about learning objects is that you may be able to build some types of assessment into the object or the repository itself–data on how often it is used, who uses it, and possibly, some outcomes measures. I offer examples of built in assessment in my review of assessment types below.

Consider when will you evaluate–at what stages, how often? Again, this is dependent on resources, but as discussed above, it is important to build in formative evaluation so you can make improvements as you go.

And lastly, what are you going to do with what you find? Assessment should lead to improvements–in the object itself, in how it is deployed, in how it can be found, in how it can be re-used. In other words, there must be effective communication between those doing the assessing and those creating the learning objects so that improvements in the categories your stakeholders have identified can be implemented.

Models for Assessment of Learning Objects

There are some interesting models available for the assessment of learning objects. Depending on the assessment plan you have created from the questions above, and the criteria which are most salient to your stakeholders, the following offer examples of the types of assessments that can be incorporated into that plan:

  • Despite Twigg’s criticism, MERLOT has built in some significant qualitative and quantitative assessment tools into its repository. There is peer review, involving teams of subject experts who review objects for content. Merlot provides a space for users to leave comments, essentially a place to collect assessments by those who have used the object. It provides a method of assessing usability by examining how others used the object within an assignment. And it counts how many people have “collected” the object as a method of assessing re-usability. With the exception of the peer review, these methods are built into the repository and require no additional data collection, only analysis.
  • The University of Wisconsin has built a repository of learning objects designed to support their goal of developing learning objects for each competency within their General Education Courses. They have articulated two specific goals for this project: accelerating the development of online courses and minimizing cost by identifying and sharing best practices. Unfortunately, there is nothing at the site that helps assess whether they are meeting these two goals. What they have built in is a place for users, both faculty and students, to comment on the object. In some cases, they have built in an assessment of a specific outcome. They have not necessarily matched the learning object with an outcome.
  • If you are spending major dollars on creating a learning object, one reason may be to save costs. However, actually being able to calculate those cost savings is not always easy. The Center for Academic Transformation has created an easy-to-understand, tested methodology for doing that type of assessment. The tool at their web site also provides instructions and examples of others who have used it.
  • Another check list you might want to adapt for your particular context can be found at AliveTek. It is mostly aligned with instructional design issues, but this too may be a part of the assessment plan. This is a particularly good checklist to use and to adapt when doing formative assessment of learning objects. Developing a check list and keeping it in mind throughout the development process may ensure that important features are included.
  • Wesleyan University is building a learning object repository, based on a clearly-thought-out, multi-faceted, longitudinal plan which employs monitoring technology, surveys, traditional classroom assessments and focus groups. The plan places a strong focus on assessing the impact of the objects on student learning. It uses technology to track student usage, providing information on which students use it, in what ways, and how often. It can also provide reports and comparison data, noting where students are coming from and which software and systems they are using. Student surveys assess the usefulness of the object in the learning process, as well as what students like and dislike about them. Faculty are asked to describe how they deployed them. Learning outcomes are assessed by using traditional classroom assessments, such as exams, in conjunction with interviews of faculty and students to ascertain those factors that contributed to success.

The programs above provide examples of robust assessment methods which focus on student learning, cost savings, good instructional design issues, ease of use and alignment to learning outcomes. Which of these make the most sense for an assessment plan depends on who your stakeholders are, what values learning objects hold, and the resources you have to conduct assessment activities (which will inform how and when you gather your data). A clearly-thought-out and well-implemented assessment plan is one way to ensure that the promise of learning objects can be fulfilled.

This article is a revision of a presentation given at the NERCOMP SIG workshop on Learning Objects, Amherst, MA in October 2004.


Astin, A, T. W. Banta; K. P. Cross; E. El-Khawas; P. T. Ewell; P. Hutchings; T. J. Marchese; K. M. McClenney; M. Mentkowski; M. A. Miller; E. T. Moran; B. D. Wright. 1992. 9 Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning.

Downes, S. 2006. Learning Objects: Their Use, Their Potential, and Why They Are Not Dead Yet

Norman, D. 2006. Learning Objects: RIP or 1.0?

Wiley, D. 2006.  RIP-ping on Learning Objects.

Veronikas, S.W. and Shaughnessy, M.F. 2004. “Teaching and Learning in a Hybrid World:
An Interview with Carol Twigg,” EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 39, no. 4 (July/August): 50-62.

French Through Songs and Singing: Language and Culture Through Music Online

by Aaron Prevots, Southwestern University

For the past several years, I have been thinking a great deal about how to incorporate music more in my French language, literature and culture classrooms and how to share the pedagogical benefits of this experience. This essay will first describe my experiences creating French through Songs and Singing, a multimedia educational Web site featuring music-related articles, streaming MP3’s of primarily public domain material and annotated, downloadable lyrics. It will then address its use in the classroom and its progress in moving toward a collaborative model. In addition to relating various unusual facets of the project, my overall aims will be to show: 1) How my ideas for technology implementation were built on existing well-received pedagogical practices and 2) How the site gradually amplified and expanded potential for broad success in the foreign language classroom through music.

Humble Beginnings
Since about 1996 (as a graduate Teaching Fellow at Brown University) I had been bringing my guitar to beginning French classes, and on occasion to more advanced literature and culture courses. I frequently received feedback such as the following: “The singing was one of my favorite parts, as were the skits we performed. I think both serve to improve spoken French and oral comprehension more than any other single activity.” “I particularly enjoyed the use of French songs integrated throughout the course, as this aspect served to support the language that was taught to the class.” “I particularly enjoyed the musical bits. I didn’t expect to like French music so well, and I enjoyed singing songs with the guitar. I also enjoy the interactive format of the class.”

The sing-along continues to be a successful pedagogical tool in my current French courses at Southwestern University. In addition to the obvious linguistic benefits of using varied materials, students seem to take naturally to singing (and sometimes even request more for end-of-year parties). After attending a Learning Objects workshop in June 2005, I found a plan taking shape. In the summer of 2006 I received support from ACS and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to pursue it. At the time, I intended to record a handful of songs I had been using to teach French and make them available to others. I wanted to “virtually” facilitate the sing-alongs that had been so popular in my courses. I selected and recorded an initial set of fifty songs to post.

Twenty of the songs to date are offered in two versions–one regular, one slow, with the slower version appearing in a second Flash Player. This corresponds to classroom experience: Students love singing but still need to learn at their own pace. This pedagogical aspect is flagged at the home page, in the project goals:

1. To promote French and Francophone cultures
2. To encourage sing-alongs in the classroom
3. To offer fast and slow versions of some songs
4. To remain faithful to traditions and also innovate
5. To provide a resource bank that can grow over time

One enjoyable first step was writing my own songs. I had written one or two before, but the idea of making a contribution to the profession through a free resource open to all motivated me to do more. These songs include a variety of musical styles and pedagogical lessons. “Je ne veux pas,” “Qu’est-ce que tu aimes, Madeleine,” and “Une vieille bonne femme,” are based on “London Bridge is Falling Down,” “Jenny Jenkins” and “I Know an Old Lady” respectively. “Le blues d’être,” meant to help students internalize irregular verb patterns, introduces more of a rock element, while “Je t’aimerais mieux, mon mari” contains traditional lyrics adapted to a Cajun style. “Les menteries” takes the lyrical tomfoolery of some traditional Franco-Canadian strains and makes it accessible to students still in their early years of French study.

Another key step was expanding site material so that cultural and academic variety were foregrounded. To me, the environment created by this grouping of individual learning objects represents a form of permanent cultural diversity outreach, in that it includes a fair number of French-Canadian traditional songs–for example, “Ah! si mon moine voulait danser,” “L’arbre est dans ses feuilles” and “Le festin de campagne“–that the typical French student in the USA might never discover otherwise. This is in addition to the usual French favorites, such as “Ah! vous dirai-je maman,” “Au clair de la lune” and “Chevaliers de la table ronde.”

In the Classroom
Surely not all of us want to suddenly burst out in song–as in the French films Les parapluies de Cherbourg, On connaît la chanson, or Pas sur la bouche, or the recent Canadian hit C.R.A.Z.Y. For putting one at ease beforehand, multimedia shines. First, students can listen to a song before class. When I bring my guitar with me, I usually present vocabulary, then one verse and chorus by myself as a further model, before we all start together. I also start into songs slowly. With the French through Songs and Singing Flash Player, this same modeling can in most cases be done just as easily without an instrument. For the “Comment dit-on blues,” I let the MP3 provide the ‘call’ lines that students respond to, and I don’t have to sing at all.

A primary strategy of mine in recent years has been to match at least one song to each chapter of our textbook and thus enhance grammatical progressions. In French I, for example, “Bonjour! Comment ça va?,” and “Les ABC,” work well as course openers; “L’arbre est dans ses feuilles” presents the expression “il y a”; “Le petit train” emphasizes the verb “avoir”; and “Une vieille bonne femme” highlights the past tense. In a third-year upper intermediate course on culture, we sang songs as they related to topics, including “J’aurai le vin” regarding sociability and “Au clair de la lune” for added insights on mores.

Similarly, it is worth mentioning that the very subject of some songs can put students in touch with course material in new ways. I envision using “Savez-vous planter les choux” as a tie-in to Agnès Varda’s film Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, and “Le petit mari,” which relates to the specific song tradition of songs by poorly married women, for a course on gender and identity. One could also examine more troubling or comical aspects of everyday life through the undertones of “Il était une bergère” or “C’est la mère Michel.” Furthermore, singing the actual texts adds linguistic variation to courses that otherwise focus on analysis. I often find that students engaged in this way are more apt to participate. Parallels to poetry can be especially interesting, in terms of how folk traditions were embedded in daily routines, with stories and wordplay an inherent part of existence socially and individually. Assuming easy access to materials and the right pedagogical touch, singing in the foreign language classroom adds variety, concretizes learning and invites a stretch beyond what students perceive to be their level.

A Dynamic and Collaborative Model
It is very much my hope that French through Songs and Singing can suit a broad public. My analysis of current resources suggests that it fills a niche. The first collaborative aspect that has fallen nicely into place is soliciting contributions from recording artists. Although time-consuming, it has reaped strong rewards. Since a plurality of voices will always enhance a songs and culture project, it was a real pleasure to incorporate the following works by current recording artists: “Le p’tit cordonnier” by Les Chauffeurs à pieds; “I.C.U.” and “J’essaye d’arrêter” by Damien; “Aux Natchitoches” by Feufollet; “San Cristobal” by Sandra Le Couteur; “Les clefs de la prison” by Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys; and “Gérard Depardieu” and “L’invitation au voyage” by Jacques Yvart. In this way, students and teachers can learn more about such areas as rap, reggae, traditional music, and ties to poetry (see “L’invitation au voyage,” based on a famous poem by Charles Baudelaire).

French through Songs and Singing has also continued its growth as a collaborative educational space by inviting scholarly contributions. Through listserves and an occasional direct email (a method not without its pitfalls), the site is moving toward including material by specialists in the areas of music, culture and pedagogy. One valuable recent addition is the “Learn About Quebec Project” by Dr. Matthew Shaftel of Florida State University and Pascale Shaftel of Maclay School, Tallahassee. Information on politically-oriented songs from Quebec–la chanson engagée–is on its way. I have arranged with one language lab director to exchange online materials along with pedagogical prefaces. An ongoing call for papers appears at the home page, and I am building further networks such as those in the Academic Commons by presenting my work at conferences.

Another collaborative aspect I am implementing in spring 2007 is posting student critical analyses of CDs by contemporary Francophone artists, once class members have selected a CD of their choice from among those purchased recently for our library. Because the online audience is international, students will have a greater motivation to craft strong arguments and to fine-tune their prose in the target language. Response to this assignment in the early weeks of class has been positive, particularly where students are enthused to have a distinct personal voice in the elaboration of course materials (they will also be choosing a novel to read independently). As always, however, a key teaching ingredient appears to be allowing adequate preparation and workshopping time by beginning the task early and having students complete it in several phases.

I would welcome similar CD or DVD critique submissions from fellow professors, with the assumption that we as faculty will function as peer reviewers to ensure the quality of material that appears.

Besides adding user offerings and new batches of songs each year (as MP3s of tunes from a variety of traditions and styles), I plan to write further articles of my own to post at the site. In such ways, this curricular tool should remain dynamic. I will continue to solicit recording artist contributions, and would very much consider student contributions provided recordings are of a quality that allow for easy comprehension. Because French through Songs and Singing was designed in WordPress (a free online web publishing platform), the creation of an extensible teaching environment that efficiently integrates these various site additions was a fairly straightforward process. A true pleasure of expanding the site is seeing the online environment amplify the kinds of group participation and engagement that already exist in the traditional classroom, whether through significant shareable resources or through the continued reflection they facilitate, a quality inherent to the best classroom teaching.

The References section has grown considerably and should provide strong support to scholars. I include ISBN’s to facilitate ordering–as well as borrowing through Interlibrary Loan. One general resource of particular value to those in all languages is Murphey, Tim, Music and Song, Oxford Resource Books for Teachers series, New York: Oxford UP, 1992, ISBN 0194370550. My own article “Pedagogical Approaches: Selected Ideas for Using Songs” provides a brief overview regarding music in the foreign-language classroom.

Beyond the Higher-Ed Classroom
This educational Web site can also be used for community outreach. I have already presented three songs to a middle-school audience that visited Southwestern University as part of our Operation Achievement program, with great success. I fully intend for the site to model good practices and provide classroom-oriented materials for any and all to use, and colleagues have encouraged its use in teacher-training courses as well as in outreach by undergraduates to area secondary schools. I will be happy to post any results to the Commons in the future, and I welcome feedback regarding successful use of the site. I do know through listserve feedback that I am already helping instructors in, for example, Spain, Ireland, Amsterdam and Rome.

This grouping of articles, links and multimedia materials has numerous features gauged toward improving teaching and learning in a higher education context. It addresses teaching goals by providing authentic materials, ideas for implementation and broad cultural connections. It is unusual in that few such multimedia sites offer material that is both sung and accompanied by a pedagogical and scholarly apparatus, at no charge and in a relatively straightforward format. I have seen other collaborative scholarly sites evolve, and feel that with time this can become an invaluable resource that celebrates as much French and Francophone cultures as lyric traditions and the human voice. On a technical level, it emphasizes the value of judiciously aggregating learning objects within a large-scale environment based on sound pedagogical practices, not only to encourage students and teachers to reuse them but to inspire us to want to do so.

Podcasting in Education: A Perspective from Bryn Mawr College

by Laura Blankenship, Bryn Mawr College

A podcast is a media file that is distributed by subscription (paid or unpaid) over the Internet using syndication feeds, for playback on mobile devices and personal computers…Like ‘radio‘, it can mean both the content and the method of syndication. The latter may also be termed podcasting. The host or author of a podcast is often called a podcaster.

Though podcasters’ web sites may also offer direct download or streaming of their content, a podcast is distinguished from other digital audio formats by its ability to be downloaded automatically using software capable of reading feed formats such as RSS or Atom.

If you haven’t heard of podcasting in education, then you’ve likely been hiding under a rock. Ever since Duke launched its iPod initiative a couple of years ago, educators have been exploring not just the use of audio, but the connection of audio to the iPod and to other portable music devices. With the increased availability of easy-to-use tools and applications such as iTunesU, more and more faculty and students are jumping on the podcasting bandwagon. Although a few truly innovative uses have cropped up, podcasts have thus far primarily been used for recording lectures for perusal by students for review purposes or by the general public who might be interested. A search of the iTunes Store for educationally-oriented podcasts shows a number of trends. Large, resource-rich universities such as Stanford and Princeton feature not only class content but also lecture series sponsored by the schools in many fields. Language instruction also predominates as do programs that offer short tips on topics such as grammar and LSAT preparation. For liberal arts colleges with few lecture-only classes and fewer resources than the Princetons or the Stanfords out there, the use of podcasts seems at first glance to be unnecessary and undesirable; however, there is some real potential for podcasts to enhance the experience of students in a liberal arts environment. Podcasting (and screencasting) is not just about the one-to-many delivery of lecture material; it also allows professors to reconfigure the use of class time in ways that enhance the intimate learning environment that is the hallmark of the small liberal arts college.Three Bryn Mawr professors in the sciences began experimenting with podcasting last year. All of them gained a new perspective on their teaching and on the students’ learning processes.

Michelle Francl began podcasting in the Fall of 2005 in her Physical Chemistry course, a course that is relatively small (about 25 students), but still largely centered on lectures. This arrangement is typical of many science classes, even at liberal arts colleges, because of the need to present a large amount of foundational material. Professor Francl found herself increasingly dissatisfied with this arrangement and was looking for a new way to organize her class. After seeing a presentation by Jean-Claude Bradley, a chemistry professor at Drexel University, Francl decided to give podcasting and screencasting a try. She had been concerned, as are many professors considering podcasting, about student attendance and a possible drop in performance as a result. Bradley showed that while attendance in his very large lecture class did drop, performance did not. Michelle found that because her class was small and because she strategically edited her podcasts to remove announcements and other information, her students attended class regularly. The podcasts, which she produced both as a videocast and as an audio-only file, were, as she described it, “like TiVo for lectures.” But this was just the beginning for Francl. Now that she has made an initial collection of lectures for this class, she hopes to assign the lectures to be listened to before class. She explained her reason for this as purely pedagogical: “I used to do the easy case in class and then send the students home to work on the hard case. That’s just the opposite of what you should do. Now they can listen to the easy case before class and we can work in class on the hard case.”

In addition to the positive response she received from students, Francl also received recognition from outside Bryn Mawr College. She had created a course blog on which she posted the link to her podcasts and which enabled her to generate the RSS feed that allows for automatic distribution of new files (see box above). She also submitted that feed to iTunes and, after a few weeks, found herself in the top ten educational podcasts. She received email from several of her “fans,” who were students without access to higher education, retired professors keeping up with the field, and students who were supplementing their studies at other institutions with her lectures. She was thrilled to see that there was an audience beyond her classroom for her work.

Neal Williams and Peter Brodfuehrer, professors in biology who team-teach an introductory course, also wanted to embark on podcasting. They had already been posting their PowerPoint lectures into Blackboard. For them, posting the videocast or the audio of their lectures was simply the next logical step. Professor Williams, especially, was a bit more skeptical than Francl about the issues involved in podcasting. He shared her concern about attendance, but he also was worried about the time it might take to produce the podcasts. Incorporating any technology into a class effectively takes time, and podcasting proved no different, but he says it was worth it. He received positive feedback from the students about the podcasts and plans to use them again when he teaches the class again. Professor Brodfuehrer also enjoyed using podcasts. “It made it easy to move between teaching techniques and styles and to use different information formats such as Powerpoint and webpages (the ability to show high quality artwork and simulations easily) and the the tablet (ability to diagram steps and thought processes of underlying material and examples). However, the professors also found that students sometimes did not use the podcasts as effectively as they might have liked. Some students, for example, listened to all the podcasts before exams, essentially re-taking the class and cramming for the exam. Instead, Williams thinks that a more effective use, which he saw a great many students doing, is to skim the lectures for key points that students did not understand. Brodfuehrer said that in future classes, he would like to have a discussion with students about effective uses of the screencasts. Like Professor Francl, Professor Williams sees ways he might alter his use of podcasts in the future rather than simply posting lectures online. He could see, for example, using podcasts to do pre-lab demonstrations, which might result in less confusion for the students. Or they might be used strictly for supplementary material that cannot be covered in class.

All three faculty members say they have learned something about their own teaching styles from listening to their podcasts or simply being aware of the recording process. Professor Williams says he is more aware of the lecture content and is less likely to stray off-topic. He also says that he more clearly focuses on kernels of information and frames that information in a context. Brodfuehrer, too, found screencasting to be a useful tool for evaluating and critiquing his own teaching. Francl found it somewhat painful to listen to herself at first, but gained valuable insights in learning where her strengths and weaknesses as a lecturer lie. Primarily, all are interested in finding ways to help students learn difficult material. The sciences, Williams says, require sifting through a lot of information; thus, the more tools he provides to help students make sense of that material, the better. In the future, he hopes to work on assessing the effectiveness of podcasts to see whether students have better retention in podcast-supported classes.

One area the three faculty members have not explored yet, but have considered, is student-created podcasts. Such podcasts make more sense in classes where oral presentation is more common, such as languages. Many faculty are using student-created audio by simply assessing students’ language skills, but they have not taken this further by having students create longer assignments. Certainly, this is on the horizon. As students who have been accustomed to using these tools on their own or for assignments in elementary and high school begin arriving on our campuses, we will see them respond to assignments with multimedia elements. Students have integrated video into paper assignments, for example, or are creating video and audio-based presentations. Some faculty, too, are beginning to think about requiring multimedia assignments. The effective use of podcasts, whether the source is faculty lectures or student assignments, is something those of us in liberal arts environments need to consider. Many podcasts now might be primarily faculty lectures that show little thought to the listeners outside the classroom and which reinscribe the “sage on the stage” model of teaching, but as Professors Francl and Williams have shown, we can rethink how podcasts effect our teaching and how they might enhance the intimate liberal arts classroom.