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 ( 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 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.


Anonymous said...

The suggestions offered were responses to a specific request for help; it seems what you are saying is that the request was invalid or somehow pedagogically unsound. Be that as it may, I find it rather presumptuous that you found the need to single out this request for assistance and question its utility or fitness for use--not to mention quoting private correspondence in a public forum.

Albert Ip said...

Sorry if my post sounds like a criticism of the good will of many of the enthusiastic and helpful EDTECH people. What I wanted to say is clear in the title of the post. I was questioning the utility of pet project beyond the owner of the project. There is no implication of the pedagogical soundness or otherwise of the projects. Alison's request just happened to be a good trigger point for the discussion and I have no intention to single her out. My apology to Alison and all the people who helped her. I have included part of our private communication because I thought that part provides a background of the reason why she started the project and also pointed out that there is utility of the project. (I would like to argue that it has not been used by others, but I cannot twist the fact to support my argument, but in general I still think that my reasoning holds.)

Sandra’s project again is pedagogical sound. The problem, which we have discussed in our private conversations, is the lack of appropriate learning outcomes matching the learners. At the moment, “first fleet” as a topic is taught in primary school in most of the Australian states. The ability of pupils at this level to process primary data and draw useful conclusion would need a lot of teacher support. That’s where we can improve the utility of the first fleet database. However stepping back one step. Sandra started her pet project some 20 years ago. Her role has definitely changed. The objective of the first fleet database has also changed. Sandra is now working in an Australian University. She has been working hard trying to convince history departments to use the database – where I personally think is at a more appropriate level.

My post here also wants to point out a fact in software development, requirement collection is a tricky but crucial part of any software development project if we want to ensure the software can be delivered within time and cost limitations. Pet projects do not have such constraints. The owner of the pet project can adjust the requirements and there is no time limitation as well. In many case, there is no budget associated to the pet projects as well.

Teachers use everything in order to achieve the learning outcome. (That is one of the points I have raised in a previous paper in relation to the limited view of the learning technologies community – the insistence of dichotomy of “learning objects” and the non-“learning objects”.) What I am trying to point out is that pet projects, in their original form, may post significant issues in sharing. But I am also convinced that pet projects have great pedagogical values. I was hoping that in the near future I can write about what I think may be a solution to that. Please watch out in this space. :-)