Is Desire2Learn search really this ineffective?

I was reading Jacob Nielson’s new research on how College students use the web and this little tidbit popped out at me.

Students are strongly search dominant and turn to search at the smallest provocation in terms of difficult navigation.

Now there is no doubt that students turn to search on Google a lot. However, research byAlison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg (pdf) of the University of Washington’s Information School show that, while Google and Wikipedia are important sources of information for students, many will begin their search with the resources given to them by their instructor.

Almost every student in the sample turned to course readings—not Google—first  for course-related research assignments.

Students are turning first to the content given to them by their instructors. As more instructors at our institution use the LMS as a content management system for their course notes and presentations, it seems logical to assume that students are turning to the search function in the LMS to find the content they need.

This got me thinking about search in our LMS, Desire2Learn. To be honest, I haven’t really paid much attention to the content search in D2L. When we work with faculty on course content, we spend time talking about how to structure content in modules and topics, but not a lot of time considering how to design our content to be search friendly within the LMS. But according to both the Neilson and Head & Eisenberg studies, perhaps we should be paying more attention to designing for search.

Or so I thought, until I dug in under the hood and checked out search in D2L.

Turns out, we really can’t do much to make content search friendly in D2L because the D2L search only searches for content based on the title of the content. Search does not look within the body of content to find search terms. I could forgive D2L if it looked only in the body of HTML documents and didn’t index the content of other document types, like PDF, Word or Powerpoint files (in which case I would have another fine piece of ammo to use to rally against using those types of file formats in the first place), but to not even search the content of an HTML document makes the search engine useless.

I may be missing something here. Perhaps there is some setting that can be tweaked to enable a full text search in D2L (and please, if you know of anything like that, don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments), but this seems like a pretty big piece of underdeveloped functionality. If students really do rely on search to the degree that research suggests, then a robust search function that will scour the course content for the exact piece of information a student is looking for should be an important feature of the LMS.


There’s something happening here

Something happening here

Something is happening at my institution. I seem to be connecting with more of our faculty on Facebook and Twitter. Interest in blogging among faculty is growing, and every week I am hearing of another faculty person starting to blog or tweet.

What is both interesting and encouraging is the topic of conversation in these spaces. They are talking about teaching and learning. They are sharing links and resources. They are connecting with each other and talking about their craft. They are developing their PLN’s, and it is very cool to see happening.

One striking example of what I am seeing occurred recently where I took part in a conversation on Facebook with an instructor who posted the following status update:

How do I measure student engagement in my classroom? How would I evaluate them if I decide not to use exams anymore?

There was a great response from his colleagues and a rich discussion ensued. But then something interesting happened. It wasn’t just other faculty who were responding. There were staff, his friends, his Dean — and students. Students who he was FB friends with weighed in with their opinions on what kind of strategies they thought would engage them. His students were responding to his question, and posting their responses to what others were suggesting.  Talk about a rich formative evaluation, done completely informally and naturally, prompted by a simple question posted as a status update.

I am not sure what is going on. Perhaps we are reaching a tipping point where there are enough people now engaged with social networks that  where this type of interaction is possible. Perhaps it is because we have a new Dean in Arts and Science. He blogs. He tweets. He connects with his faculty in Facebook. And I think he is setting the tone for his School. Perhaps his presence in these social spaces, talking about both professional and personal things, is making it somehow more inviting for his faculty. I’m not sure. But whatever the reasons, it is great to see and be able to take part in these conversations without having to wait for a once a year conference, or a chance hallway encounter.


What is a MOOC?

MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Course, and it seems like there are more popping up these day, primarily aimed at educators. Which is one of the reasons why I think Jim Groom’s DS 106 course on Digital Storytelling is an important evolution in the MOOC trail, blazed by people like Alec Corous, George Siemens, David Wiley, and the recent PLENK 2010 course run by George Siemens, Dave Cormier and Stephen Downes. Jim’s course is pushing the MOOC beyond educators and towards a more general audience in that the subject matter is not specifically related to the process of networked learning or educational technology.

If you are not familiar with the MOOC model of online learning, Dave Cormier (who, along with Bryan Alexander coined the term) has created a great primer video on MOOC’s. I think this is an important video as it clearly articulates, in less than 5 minutes, what a MOOC is, how it works, and how it is different than other types of online courses. I think it provides a great introductory gateway to the concepts of networked learning for those unfamiliar with the terrain.

Update: About 30 minutes after I published this article I read a post by George Siemens entitled What’s Wrong with (M) OOC’s in which he hilights three concerns he has with MOOC”s, which are the high drop out rate, degree of technical skill required by both participants and facilitators, and learner disorientation. I am guilty of the first one – dropping out of PLENK. I started strong, but couldn’t finish. This was due mostly to the other commitments I have going right now (my Masters research). It was too easy to not participate, which is reflected in another concern with MOOC’s which Alan Levine brings up in his comment to Georges post:

To me a missing piece is the challenge of creating the stake that a learner has in a MOOC- not paying for a course, not working with a grade or credit as incentive, it falls completely on an individual’s own internal drive to participate, and to do so fully.

One thing is clear – the MOOC model is emerging and there are people who are working hard at figuring out all the bits and pieces. And they are doing it out in the open for all of us to see and participate in.


Delicious – the place I got it

Delicious is dead.

Er, sorry. Delicious is in the sunset column.

I don’t know if I could write a better eulogy to Delicious than Marshall has at ReadWriteWeb. He hit on so many points and ways in which the service was so valuable to so many people. Me included.

I started experimenting with Delicious in 2005 after hearing a hallway conversation between Scott Leslie and another of my BCcampus coworkers at the time. They were talking about these things called folksonomy and tagging. I was intrigued.

Delicious was the place where so much of the Web 2.0 world first made sense to me. With Delicious, I got it. I got the power of networks. I got social learning. I got tagging. I got the cloud. I got transparency. I got open. I got web as tool. I got what a “social” network was, even though I was still years away from joining Facebook or Twitter. Delicious armed me with enough conceptual knowledge of what a social network was that I was able to scaffold that knowledge and easily “get” the value of Facebook and Twitter when they arrived a few years later.

Today I kinda feel like when AOL announced they were killing Netscape; a kind of melancholy sadness at the passing of something that was once so great.

But what makes this different from Netscape is that Delicious is still great and remains one of the most valuable tools in my network. It did what it did extremely well. Sure there was the convenience of storing your bookmarks on the web and having them accessible from anywhere, but that wasn’t the real value of Delicious for me. The real value is its transparency in that I am able to see what my network is bookmarking. Delicious gives me a glimpse into what they found important on the web. What they bookmarked helped me focus my attention on what was important. It helped me learn. Delicious was a small piece of social learning in action. I was observing skilled practitioners in my field through their bookmarks, and was able to follow their links and find out why they felt this article or this link was important to them.

Oh sure, there is that Twitter thing where links are shared all the time.  But Delicious is different. Beyond the realtime stream of what my network is bookmarking at the moment, I also had access to everything they had ever bookmarked in the past. Through the Delicious search engine, I was able to search through hundreds of  thousands of links curated by the members of my network. The people who I connect with in Delicious are dealing with the same problems, questions and challenges that I do. When I needed to recommend a new tool for a job, I would go to my Delicious network first and search what my network had squirreled away there. Being able to have access to this collected archive of links vetted by people I trusted? Invaluable.

Rarely did a conversation happen “on Delicious”. It wasn’t that kind of social network. It was a lurkers paradise. Not that I didn’t contribute. I bookmarked and annotated, passively adding to the collective knowledge (so I hoped) of my network.

Yeah, I know Diigo is there. That is probably where I will end up. But I always found Diigo too heavy, too feature rich. In Delicious, there was simplicity. It was the journeyman of Web 2.0 tools. Dependable, gets the job done, no nonesense. But yet flexible enough that you could mash it and collaborate in numerous ways.

In some respects, Delicious is just a tool. I mean, I still have those connections, and I can and will recreate them in other venues and services. My network will survive. I’ll find ways to continue doing what I do. That’s what distributed networks do. Survive thermonuclear bombs to rebuild and thrive again. But it was this tool (and, more specifically, the architects of this tool) who taught me so much about how the web works that calling it “just a tool” seems cheap and demeaning. It deserves more respect from me than that. A shovel is a tool. Delicious was disruptive and changed my view of how things worked.

Sometimes it IS about the technology. And I can’t give it much higher praise than that.


See, this is why I can't do ds106

#ds106. I am sure that is going to be a trending hashtag in the new year as Jim Groom’s MOOC  (Massive Open, Online Course) on Digital Storytelling gets underway in January. And looking at the participants who have signed on so far (or are contributing without actually jumping into the course), it is going to be a heck of a fun ride.

So many people in my network are participating (including one of our Art instructors) that I am feeling quite bummed about not being able to take part. But this winter/spring will see me finishing my Masters thesis, and, after the time I spent putting this together last night, DS 106 would just be too compelling a reason to not transcribe that 90 minute interview.

Here is the gist of a potential DS 106 assignment (suggested, I believe, by Tom Woodward)

Make an animated gif from your favorite/least favorite movie capturing the essence of a key scene. Make sure the movement is minimal but essential.

So, here is my contribution.

From Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. This captures the moment where Alex, sitting with his droogs in the Korova Milk Bar, hears a woman singing opera. As that sly smile creeps across his face, we are fooled into thinking that he has nothing but scorn and derision for the older group of well dressed people sitting in the bar, and that he is about to call his droogs and go all malarky on their asses. But, what becomes clear a few moments after this, is that smile is not a smile of wicked delight at the thought of going ultra-violent, but a smile that revels his love of music. It is this moment that reveals both a weakness and a humanity that is ultimately both sympathetic and repulsive.  And, if you know the movie, that love of music becomes a key plot device later on when his behaviour gets modified.

I did this using the frame capture feature of the VLC player, and then created the animated gif in Adobe Fireworks.

This is the reason why I can’t do DS 106. As I beavered away on this in the basement last night, 20 more invitations to participate in my thesis research didn’t get sent out. Too…much…temptation.

What I find really interesting about this (besides the subject and the delivery method) is how Jim has taken the Instructional Design of the courses out into the open. Jim is certainly at the helm here, but he has asked his network for ideas. What kinds of assignments should this course include? How does one go about designing a MOOC?

He is crowdsourcing instructional design.

@jimgroom another #ds106 idea, 3 degrees of wikipedia competition see who can come up with most obscure wikiP “triple” (from @sleslie)

I’d like to see someone write a story/poem with a “googlewhack” in each line #ds106 (from @twoodwar)

5 Card Flickr #ds106 Story: Life is Like a Barrel of Pandas Add to pool tag ds106 in flickr Play (from @cogdog)

Maybe a good idea to use in #ds106 “Tim Burton’s new project: Storytelling with Twitter fans” (from @jtcf)

It’s a conversation that not only are his network of educators contributing to, but also potential students for the course.  This course is being designed, at least in part, by the crowds, led by a trusted network of educators that Jim has invested the time and energy in to developing relationships with.

It is a testament to the benefits of educators being open and engaged in social spaces, and taking a long term approach to developing relationships. If Jim had just started blogging or had just started using Twitter a month ago, this type of collaboration would not be possible. The network effect would not be there.

For me, a learner trying to understand the process of designing engaging learning experiences in a technology mediated environment, this type of transparency of process is invaluable, as it is to Jim, who builds on the successes and challenges of those who came before him. Standing on the shoulders.

Rock on, my droogs. I’ll be lurking along the sides and look forward to seeing what you all come up with.



I usually don’t write highly personal stuff about my work, but felt I just had to say this. Yesterday I had a reminder of how wonderful the people I work with are.

Yesterday at 2pm I had my first interview for my thesis. I was planning on taking a late lunch and doing it over my lunch hour. Naturally, I have been nervous about this new phase in my thesis beginning. This was the guts of it – collecting the data. Do I have the right questions? Will Skype work? All those niggling little things that keep you up at night and make you wring your hands all day.

The office was quiet. I was the only person providing D2L support. Our 3 ID’s were working on the other campus, and our regular D2L admin was taking a holiday day. I was holding down the fort, providing support and admin functions for our LMS.

At 1:15, I was just about to begin setting up my computer in our meeting room for the 2pm Skype interview. I wanted to test everything out well ahead of time. I saw an instructor walk into our office area. He came over to me and reported that D2L was slow, and he had a group of students writing a test in the lab next door. I popped onto D2L to take a look and it was slow. And getting slower. Suddenly an email popped into the support inbox. Were we having problems with D2L because this person could not log on. Then another. And another. Students began coming into the office, reporting problems with D2l. The Learning Commons was full. D2L was going down. I was alone, and in 30 minutes I had to do my first interview for my research. Anyone reading this who has ever done research, especially research that involves long form interviews, knows how tough it can be to line up a participant. I did not want to reschedule. I began to feel a pit forming in my stomach.

A quick call to my team leader at the other campus confirmed they were having problems, too. She immediately got it. She knew what was coming up for me in 30 minutes, and what it meant for my own personal development – my first thesis interview. And how did she handle it? She told me to walk away.

She told me to go for a walk, clear my head and get into a good space for my interview. She talked me down from my rising panic, and told me that what I needed to do at that moment was focus on my research. Our entire LMS was falling apart (not a usual occurrence I have to say. Of all the criticisms one may have of D2l, reliability is not one we often face), I was the only person around, and she was telling me to put my research first. I felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted, and I literally got some kind of warm chemical rush up my back as I heard her voice at the other end of the phone telling me to go and prep for my interview.

So I did. I walked away. Went outside. came back 10 minutes later, went into the meeting room and set up my computer. I closed the door. It felt a bit like that NFB film The Big Snit, where thermonuclear war is a-raging just outside the door of the house. But I went ahead and shut it out and did my interview. And it went very well.

Later when I emerged I found out D2L had come back fully online around 2:20, and all was quiet. My team leader had triaged the emails in our support email box while I was busy. All was well. Some co-workers had come back into the office and were hanging Christmas decorations. Sanity had been restored. And I was reminded once again that, when it comes to work, I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by supportive, caring people. Years of working in commercial media has meant I have worked for a lot of horrible bosses in my time. I can’t begin to express how my team leaders actions yesterday made me feel, other than to say it spurred me to spend the morning writing this post, as a small way of thanking her for what she did yesterday.

Thanks, Susan.


PageFlakes – a cautionary reminder that free comes with a price

This morning Alec Corous tweeted a crowdsourced call for tools for a workshop he is presenting. I responded and suggested a couple of aggregators in Netvibes and PageFlakes.

I am a big Netvibes user & fanboy – it is one of the web tools I could not live without as it is my central dashboard for my online life. PageFlakes is a tool I have used in the past, but hadn’t touched for awhile and when Alec went to check the PageFlakes site, it was down. I started poking around and asking a few questions and discovered that it does look like Pageflakes is gasping it’s final breath. It’s probably not a good sign that the official company blog hasn’t been updated since July 2008, and most of the comments posted on it these days are for male enhancements.

It served as a good reminder for me – a message that I forget until something like this pops up. Not that I am going to stop using these tools, but every once in awhile it’s a good thing that something like PageFlakes dies as a cautionary tale that many of the tools I use and, in some cases, have come to rely on are just a single bad quarter away from disappearing.

Which is why data portability is such a crucial issue, and one that I pay much more attention to when I sign up for a new tool these days.

The other thing I have been paying more attention to when signing up for free services is what is the business plan? Is there a way that this service is making (or can make) money? And is there a way I can pay a few dollars for those services that I have come to rely on. I do this with the wiki service I use. I also pay for my own web hosting for this blog. If there is a way I can pay, then I don’t mind kicking in a few dollars for a service that I truly find valuable. After all, everyone has to make a buck, and I am not adverse to paying for something if it means it has a better chance of surviving in the long run.


Network vs Community

A post by George Siemens on PLN’s earlier this week has really pushed my thinking about legitimate peripheral participation, lurking, and the differences between a learning network and a learning community with respect to social expectations and identity.

I don’t like to think of myself as a ‘taker’, yet I do often consider myself a ‘lurker’. I do not equate ‘lurking = taking’. Sometimes I lurk, sometimes I take. Sometimes I feel I don’t have anything to add to the conversation, so I just like it as a way to acknowledge that I have been there and send a signal to my connection to keep those weak ties bound. Sometimes I contribute something back.

I still find myself uncomfortable. The dialectic nature of learning does not always come easy to me. Even posting my response to George made me uncomfortable, to the point where I was almost apologetic to George for bringing the whole issue of lurking up in the first place as I felt that it distracted from the important point he was making about the need to act by contributing something to all these connections we are busy making.

The reasons why I felt uncomfortable are complex and personal, primarily centered around my own issues of often feeling like I am an imposter at the table. It’s a feeling I have often, even in f2f social situations. I don’t bring this up as a way to exercise my own personal issues as some sort of angst-y therapy blog post, but rather to highlight the complex and highly personal nature of why we may choose to contribute or not contribute (and while reading comments like “Lurking in the physical world is done by thieves, spies and ethnographers” makes me smile, it also doesn’t make a self-proclaimed lurker feel anymore comfortable about contributing). I still feel like something is at risk when I post something. It is a barrier for me, and one that I can’t (or choose not to) always overcome.

I think the fact that I “sometimes” feels like a lurker illustrates the fluid nature of our own personal identity on the web, a point underscored for me when I read George’s reply to  Tannis Morgan’s comment in which he was articulating the differences between identity in a network, and identity in a community.

Hi Tanis – identity and positioning are very different things in networks than they are in community. I don’t want to get into the whole community/network debate here (we do that annually in CCK courses), but networks have different social structures than most communities do. A community has general rules, guidelines, and soft social pressure. We get these in networks to a lesser degree. In networks, for example, we can have parallel conversations where I follow you, I know what you’re writing and thinking about, it forms my development, but I don’t have to focus explicitly on what you (and others) say. Conversations are abundant, diverse, fragmented, and complex. In a community, stronger protocols exist. For example, in a virtual community, if everyone is blasting out random thoughts and ideas, we conclude there is no engagement. On Twitter, I can contribute, create a few resources, post them…and maybe people will respond. Or maybe they won’t. But it’s ok, in a network, to contribute and not be explicitly acknowledged. In a community, contribution has stronger social norms – i .e. it needs to be acknowledge, discussed, and so on. As a result, the identity of individuals in social networks has a different impact than it does in communities. But I need to think a bit more about what exactly that difference is…at this point, it seems to me that identity is more fluid in networks and therefore has less requirements of expected behaviour or roles than we find in communities.

Reading this was a bit of an aha moment for me (and a duh moment as well). A learning network is not a learning community. There are differences, both subtle and profound, between the two.

Which brings me back to Wenger & Lave’s legitimate peripheral participation, and how my thinking got shifted by this post. LPP is a concept that is very much tied to communities, specifically Communities of Practice. But, as George points out, a network is not a community. They are two different entities, and the social expectations for involvement in both are different. In my attempt to understand the nature of networked learning and PLN’s, perhaps I am transferring too much from the Community of Practice model, and not fully acknowledging that there are fundamental differences that exist between learning in a community and learning in a network.

Which makes me wonder at what point do our models of thinking – models that have served us so well over the years – begin to get stretched too far? At what point do our models begin to hold us back instead of give us the foundation to move forward? At what point does our scaffold begin to fall down and need to be rebuilt again?

Finally, this all makes me think that we do a disservice to both the terms “lurking” and “legitimate peripheral participation” when we use them interchangeably (guilty). They are different things, and I sometimes think the (undeservedly) pejorative nature of the term “lurker” often gets dressed up with the much more acceptable term of legitimate peripheral participation. Legitimate peripheral participation may begin with lurking, but there is an expectation that this is the first step in a continuum for a learner in that they will eventually move out of the lurking phase and take a more active role in a community.


Academics work around the paywall

Academics are finding ways around paywalls to provide access to academic research for colleagues. That’s one of the findings of research conducted by Jason Priem and Kaitlin Light Costello of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on how and why scholars cite on Twitter.

In the research, Preim and Costello analyzed the links tweeted by academics. They  broke the tweets down into 1st and 2nd order tweets. 1st order tweets were tweets that contained direct links to peer reviewed resources. 2nd order tweets were links to a web page (like a blog) which contained either a link or description of a peer-reviewed resource. The tweets analyzed were almost evenly split between 1st and 2nd order links (52%-48% respectively).

What is interesting about this is the reasons why academics link to 2nd order resources. Some found that it fit their workflow better. But others said that it helped them get around paywalls to articles.

That second point bears repeating. It helped them get around paywalls to articles.

[Armando] I’m much more likely, if I see an article that I think is really interesting, to blog about it myself and post a link to that or to link to someone else’s blog about it. Because you can provide a little more substance that way, even to people who do not have access to it behind the paywall.

The quantitative data support this interview finding. While 56% of first-order links were open access, only 25% of second-order links were free to access. This significant difference (p < .001, ?² = 12.86) suggests that scholars may prefer to link directly to the article when it is open access but will resort to second-order links to bypass paywall restrictions. Participants were attracted to open-access articles for Twitter citations; Ben said “I would certainly be much more likely to link to things if they were more readily available.”

Now, I am no academic. I am clueless about how the inner machinations of academic publishing work. But something tells me when academics are finding ways to work around the restrictions put in place to prevent access the research they are creating – well, that tells me something is not quite working with the current system.

Thanks to Tom Fullerton for sending this article my way – via Twitter – a first order citation of the highest order.