Tuesday, 31 August 2004

Fablusi Role Playing Issues

With my work for Fablusi, I am in a special position to observe the pedagogical power of online role play simulation. In the past few years, I have designed, helped to design and watched the designing and running of hundreds of online role play simulation running on Fablusi platform. I am also in the special position to get into the underlying database and read something even moderators might not be able to read. Note that I did not voilate any the privacy of the moderators or players, I was asked to do so either because I need to help the moderator and solve some technical problems. But I do build up an insight which is quite unique – I suppose.

In the past posts, I have been focussing on SCORM. Via Stephen Downes OLDaily, I was pointed to the eLearnQueen’s blog. Her first article was an insightful description of “The Ethics of Video Game-Based Simulation”. Reading the post, I resonated with her observations and was inspired to reflect on the path I have taken in building a platform to deliver this powerful pedagogy. The first thing I noticed is the differences in the genre and context. Susan Smith Nash and I both talk about simulation and is, in a lot of senses, the same type of simulations – role playing where artificial intelligence is only tangential to the system. (The other type of simulation is rule-based simulations where it is the model and/or artificial intelligence that is driving the interaction.) However, Fablusi role play simulation differs from Nash’s simulation in that we are not a virtual graphical environment – we do not have avatar. Not that we cannot support avatars, we use text-based interaction for keeping the cost down as well as supporting an important pedagogical construct. I describe our text-based reality as “created reality” where the images (if any) of the roles and other roles are the creative constructs by the players based on the descriptions provided. There is no visual images to “restrain” your imagined self, foes and friends in the scenario. This often unleashes a high creative spirit from the players and ownership of the role by the players. I believe this is beneficial to the learning process. Nash’s simulations, being linked to “matter of live and die” decisions, have no room for assumption testing and experimenting. The scenarios have to be as realistic as possible and the transfer efficacy must be high and effective. Fablusi provides a safe environment for our learners to experiment, test assumptions and play with possibilities. As my business partner Roni Linser put it, in Fablusi, “play” implies play with possibilities, play for fun and role playing as in playing a character in a theater.

These differences post a different set of ethnical issues. Since I came from a teaching background, my own belief systems would have biased me to focus on different aspects of the issues. Foremost to me is the issue of “duty of care” as a teacher towards my students. In a physical environment, it is the responsibility of the presiding teacher to ensure a reasonable safe learning environment. When we select teaching/learning material, we bear the responsibility to screen out inappropriate material. In the online world, the physical safety is not our issue. The learners should be in the safety of a laboratory or their home – which is beyond our control. The material accessible via the Internet is very difficult to censor and filter. In our particular case of online role play, the duty of care should be about the psychological safety of the players playing the simulation. We know, and I have seen mature adult burst in tears during debriefing, that online role play is emotionally intense. The first ethnical issue, in Fablusi’s case, is to ensure that the moderator understands this issue of “duty of care” and works to create a safe environment. From the implementation point of view, I deliberately make the environment different from the real world counter part. I insisted that players “log in” (and “log out” which unfortunately is very difficult to enforce in a web-based environment) to create the sense of “entering” and “existing” the simulated environment. During “pre-briefing”, we stubbornly repeated the notion of this separation too.

Until we implemented the “wealth” sub-system, Fablusi has no random element. Every “random” effect is the results of the complex interactions among the roles. If there is a disaster, it is by design because we want the players to experience certain situation based on the learning objectives we wanted to achieve. However, there is an observed “randomness”. Several role play simulations have been played more than once. (Since Fablusi has a flexible authoring environment, our authors tend to modify the scenario every time, but there are still a few which are played again verbatim) From the runs of these same simulations, the game outcomes have been different every time while the learning outcome has been consistently reported to be highly positive.

Because of time limitation and the notion “playing is the excuse of debriefing” [Thiagi???], many of our role play ended “bluntly” – at a high point when players are totally absorbed in the scenario. I have no answer whether that is an ethnically correct strategy or otherwise. Ending at a high note has the advantage of an enthusiastic debriefing sessions. Every player is eager to find out who played which role and what will be their next move…. But certainly, ending a high point also creates a sense of incompleteness and lack of closure for many opened issues.

I suppose, Fablusi being a learning environment, these ethnical stances are acceptable. What is your opinion? Please let me know.

Monday, 30 August 2004

What I would like to see added to the SCORM specification

It has been almost two weeks since my last post. I have been keeping my head down working on version 2 of Fablusi. There is a lot of new features in version 2 that I can write about, but it seems that I just cannot avoid writing about SCORM.

One of the improvement I wish to see in the data model behind SCORM (or in fact any eLearning effort) is to support the concept of cohort of learners. Stating the obvious, a cohort of learners is a group who has agreed to advance the study in approximate the same pace, sometimes for the logistic reasons determined by the education/training provider. However, there are other valid pedagogical reasons that support collaborative learning too. This post is not going to touch upon that. Let us assume that there is value under SOME situations for supporting collaborative learning in an eLearning environment. Then, one of the pre-requisites will be the concept of cohort – the ability to express the intention of a group of learners to engage as a group. Without this, there will NOT be any collaborative learning. After all, collaborative learning implies learners working together – tackling or discussing about the issue, working on solution or problems together. It will be extremely frustrating if I am talking about one issue while everybody else is working at a different issue. To me at least, there will not be any collaboration. A pre-requisite of this is the identification of the group (cohort). Synchronicity is not necessarily the pre-requisite of collaboration, but “approximately at the same pace” and an agreement or obligation of participation are.

There are two types of collaborative learning activities (as my per normal kind of thinking, talking about two types is only a place holder to describe two extremes of a continuum....): free form and structured.

Free form collaboration can be formed ad hoc. The membership of the group can be quite dynamic, just like any discussion forum. People started a topic, some find it interesting and throw in a few ideas and the exchange occurs. Such collaboration is difficult to sustain. For a sufficiently large participation forum, the interests come and go – typically represented by bursts of intense exchanges followed by quiet periods. The group process is only managed as the collaboration develops as and when becomes necessary. Such free form collaboration can be supported by conferencing software, blog, or other collaboration tools.

For the same technique to be applied to a formal group (like a student body), there are lots of difficulties in the group building and maintenance as evidenced by a large body of literature addressing the issues of “moderating” discussion forums.

Free form collaboration is good for life-long learning. If you subscribe to some active discussion forums related to your profession, that can provide some valuable ongoing development for your professional life – although not necessarily those “just-in-time” training some authors may have allured to.

Structured collaborative learning activities implied some form of structure, e.g. a debate is a collaborative activity and the turn-taking process in this particular activity is well-known. (Sorry for the shameless pluck, see the first paper at http://www3.dls.au.com/scorm).

Free form can be implemented in parallel to SCORM using a discussion forum accessible to the group of students taking that course. Structured collaborative learning activities is better implemented *within* SCORM. Both will require the use of some kind of "cohort" information – best coming from the SCORM supported data model – rather than the current random implementations by different vendors.

The cohort data may also support SCORM-SSS (my dynamic look and feel of SCORM – see any paper in the above site.).

The discussion of the exact nature of the cohort data fields may be too technical to be discussed here. Interested readers may contact me directly. If there is sufficient interest, I may do a post about the technical aspects.

Please let me know how you feel about support collaborative learning within a SCORM environment. Is that against the original design vision as derived from a computer managed instruction paradigm? Are we ready to proceed into the collaborative learning?

Tuesday, 17 August 2004

!dea-lab day 2

This is day 2 in the !dea-lab and there is a parallel conference starting next door. The number of participants in the interoperability lab actually decreased. But this also gave me an opportunity to engage in more detail discussions.

One of the thing I felt very good about a discussion with a TAFE participant is the verification of the fundamental assumptions of course player. SCORM courses are primarily designed for online delivery. However, for same sector, e.g. the TAFE sector in Australia, increasingly found themselves delivering content to the disadvantaged. On one hand, they want to keep their courses on the web, they also need to cater for students who may have slow or unreliable internet connection. On the other hand, the target audience will be better served by high interactive multimedia which demands bandwidth. Course player can provide them with a solution: the same content can be delivered on the web AND put on a CD.

A number of participants agree along similar line.

Monday, 16 August 2004

!dea-lab Day 1

I am at the !dea-lab today interoperating SCORM course player with other people's content. The experience has been great. I have imported some large sample course (over 50M) into course player and is pleasantly surprised that it actually worked the first time the content is loaded.

I also heard Dan Rehak talk about the future of SCORM.

Thursday, 12 August 2004

Who should pay for academic publishing?

Stephen Downes's OLDaily prompted me to read the "The Devil You Don’t Know: The Unexpected Future of Open Access". (I read FirstMonday regularly - but this month, I am just too busy!) Stephen's remark encouraged me to squeeze some time to do that. But I have not finished reading. I am about one third through and cannot continue anymore. I suppose Stephen has read the whole article and I will take his summary as the correct conclusion.

Traditionally, authorship and authority are closely linked. Promotion to tenure or higher position in higher education institutions depends on the amount of "publication". In some extreme cases, the teaching quality does not count! Sure, I can recall many inspiring lectures that I have attended. I am sure you can recall some really bad lectures given by senior lecturers or professors too.

In my humble opinion, the advent of technology - eLearning in particular - will shift this balance. Some obvious observations: Average age of higher education students is rising. There is an obvious decrease of average "academic" level due to a larger and more diverse student body. Geographically based "capture zone" is becoming less and less influential to students' choice of university. Travelling is cheaper and there are more distance-delivered courses which also provided an added flexibility in time. Eventually, competition among universities becomes global. Some will succeed. Because the scalability of the technology, there is no upper limit of intake. As in most phenomena in our society, the power law applies. A small number of successful universities will cater for the majority of the students.

In these teaching universities, the teacher-centric higher education will disappear. Teachers in these teaching universities will no longer obtain their authority through publication. I will see teachers maintain their edge by being a good teacher, a good facilitator of learning, a good supporter, a good motivator or a good guide in the students' pursuit of their learning goals.

Research laboratories and research centric universities will still exist. These are either funded by public purse or supported by research funds. In the first case, the OA model of publishing completely makes sense. The additional cost (if any) will be absorbed without anyone noticing. In the latter case, the research result will likely be locked in patents – the information is still publicly available – just that you cannot use that information for some years. (By the way, I hope that governments are sensible enough to limit the extension of patents. I am glad that Australia’s labour party is to introduce laws to prevent “ever-green” patent practices, at least to provide the protection to our pharmaceutical benefit scheme.)

Do we still need to discuss the cost of Open Access publishing? Does anyone really care? Sorry, not me!

Free SCORM course?

As I am preparing for the launch of SCORMplayer.com, I think it would be nice to provide some SCORM courses from alternate sources so that people can test the compatibility of the Course Player. I went on to Google and did a search using "free SCORM course". Surprise! surprise! I found none from the search engine after going throught about 5 pages of search results. Not that there is no search results - just that there is no FREE SCORM course available, at least from the initial few result pages.

These days, everyone expects to find some information on any topic from the search engines. I am not saying that we should rely solely on the search engine to do our academic research and we know that no search engine is anywhere near comprehensive, but we would expect to find something, right? I went to ADL, there is ONE sample course.

This bets a question. Is there anyone using SCORM? Are all SCORM courses NOT in public domain? Not even some sample courses?

Readers, if you know of any free sample SCORM course, please, please let us know. In return, I will let you know that there are TWO free SCORM courses at SCORMPlayer.com website. So, if you want to find SCORM courses from alternate sources, go to SCORMPlayer.com.

Tuesday, 10 August 2004

Who should pay for education?

When the government was promoting the concept of "user pay" as funding model for higher education, I was feeling very uneasy about this. However I was not able to launch an effective counter argument. I came across this paper by Jim Blair. now, I will have a strong response when people talk to me about "user-pay funding model".

Jim Blair points out that from the benefits prospective, the overall society (i.e. the government or public purse) should pay because everyone would like to live in an educated society. From an obligation point of view, this generation has already enjoyed our own free education, and like everything free, someone at sometime has to pay for it. His argument is that providing free education to our children is an obligation that we should meet.

What do you think? Write a comment and share with me.

Saturday, 7 August 2004

Confession of a Learning Technologist

With my learning technologist hard hat on, my yesterday's post set up the scene for today's confession.

Yesterday, I wrote about pet projects. Some pet projects are developed by teachers. Obviously such pet project would have immediate appeal to all like-minded teachers in similar context. My argument is to look at how such valuable resources can have wider use, beyond the immediate utility of the pet project owners and about extending the utility of the resource beyond this immediate group!

These projects are driven by immense enthusiasm by their owners. There are colossal amount of effort throw into the projects - imagine the time devoted to the project by the pet project owner over many years! It would be a waste if we simply say that these are not sharable. Again, this is not my point. This was not my intention of yesterday’s post.

Let me draw one analogy first. Museums are mostly collection of artifacts which were created without any learning outcome in mind. But the way these artifacts are arranged, the supporting narratives or worksheet may make a visit to a museum very educational. Schools routinely organise students visits when a certain topic is taught. Most museums these days have special people providing support to these student- groups and address their need in achieving the intended learning outcomes.

We have news which are told to inform a general audience with no particular learning outcome in mind. When a piece of news is used in a classroom, depending on the intended learning outcome, the teacher will scaffold the news with additional material, or draw the attention of the students towards some specific part of the news. The news may be used in a language lesson – to illustrate the use of certain word. The news may be used in a social lesson. The news may be used in a second language lesson….

If resources which are created without any learning outcome in mind can be used in a classroom, many pet projects created by teachers would have tremendous value. The trick, I think, is to create scaffolding material which reflects specific learning outcomes in our syllabus. Once such scaffolding material is associated with the material, the use of the resource would require little additional effort. As a learning technologist, I have been missing my point by singly focussed on technology without linking the technology with syllabus. I hope I won’t make the same mistake in the future.

Friday, 6 August 2004

Pet projects - are they sharable?

Alison James in a recent post in EDTECH (EDTECH@H-NET.MSU.EDU) said,

"I have a 115 page MS WORD document with a listing of useful websites that I have been collecting since I started Uni in 1999 and then have continued once I started teaching last year. I have an index at the beginning so I can easily link to each section etc."

She likes to create a web site for this resource.

There are quite a number of responses, suggesting ways to convert the WORD document to HTML. Others suggested where to host the web site. I think the intentions of these suggestions are good, but missed an important point completely.

Before I go into discussion about why these suggestions missed the point, I like to draw out another experience to illustrate that this problem is not unique.

I know Sandra Wills from University of Wollongong. She has a pet project about the people arriving Australia in the First Fleet (http://firstfleet.uow.edu.au) She has been developing this database for over 20 years. Yes, the first release, according to her, were on Apple ][ floppy disks. Every conference she goes to, every possible events she attends (she keynoted a lot of conferences!), First Fleet is always mentioned. You can read about this in a paper we wrote together (OK, I did not write the paper. She did the hard work and put my name on the paper!). It was assumed that a database of primary data would be very useful in many aspects. But the log suggested that the use of the database was very shallow.

Collecting over one hundred pages of resources is a lot of work and we surely would like to be able to leverage on such work especially when Alison is so generous to share the years of work on building up the resource list. However I question the usefulness of this list to anyone else except Alison. Obviously, for Alison, she would have a "mental map" of the resources. She would know where-about of any resource which she may want to use. To her, this is a valuable tool in her everyday teaching.

For everybody else, Alison's resources would represent over 1000 data points (assuming on average there are 10 resources per page) and without any clue about how to use the resources. Will anybody use it? Will it be easier for me just to go to google and do a fresh search instead of manually going through Alison's list?

This problem is akin to the financial consultants who charge large amount of money for their recommendations. The basic raw data, i.e. the trading prices of each stock, are available quite easily (and may be free) from the Stock Exchange websites. What the financial consultants' client is paying for is NOT the data. They are paying for the view, a view through the eyes of their trusted consultant.

A better suggestion to Alison is not about the technical ways of converting her word document into HTML page. I would rather ask Alison to present her list as a special collection appropriate for some identified uses in a typical classroom. However, Alison's problem is more complex than the financial consultant. For the financial consultant, the client has a very clear objective - make as much money as possible. And this objective is very clear to the financial consultant as well. For Alison, what constitutes "identified uses" in a typical classroom is a very fuzzy goal. A typical use in my classroom is likely to be a very special case in yours.

I truly believe that usefulness is measured by the fitness of use. Are pet projects sharable? I think the answer is only between those who share some common assumptions. For education (eLearning in particular), such asusmptions are not very clear!

After I wrote this post, I sent to Alison for comment. She promptly replied and sent her index of the resources to me as well. It is IMPRESSIVE. Thank you, Alison. The following is extract of her reply.

I think basically as I have done a few webpages while at Uni it presents a challenge to me that I know I can do - and do it well! I don't just want to have them all in a bookmark. When I look at Pat Elliott's site (Canadian teacher/librarian http://www.edselect.com) and all the categories are set up in a table and then link to the respectable pages, this is how I want to make my website. I have done this before at Uni when I had to pick a topic (I chose Space/Solar System) but is wall only very small compared to what I want to do now.

All of these sites I have collected are for teachers/educators. Frankly, I would like to do this for my own satisfaction and personal experience. I will use it a lot in my job. Whether others would, I don't know, however I am sure just amongst my friends (teachers) they would use it a lot. I am often emailed for sites on certain topics and it would be a lot easier to just give them the site to refer to.

Monday, 2 August 2004

A random start

OK, finally, I am convinced enough to start a blog of my own. However, visitors please note that English is not my first langauge and my natural language ability is nothing but bad. However, I do hope that my message can get throught.

Why I start a blog? Well quite difficult to answer this one. Partly because I feel I like to join the bloggers, partly as a mechanism to market my wares and partly as a record of my personal journey in eLearning. Anyway, it has to have a start.

Why this name? OK, there is a story to tell here.

Many years ago, I was a Physics teacher. In one of my classes, I quoted a short story from a book "A Random Walk in Science" and forgotten about all these. Several years later, a young gentleman visited me at school. He was one of my former students. He bought along this book and gave it to me. Now, I am holding this book in my hands. A lot of memories come back to me. I suppose this is the joy of teaching.

So, I think calling my blog a "Random Walk in ELearning" serves two purpose: the random nature of this blog - I don't have anything particular to blog about and that this name gives me back a lot of good feelings.