This past week MBS Direct hosted the Xplana conference in Columbia. Xplana launched this past summer and is being heralded as a mashup of Facebook, del.icio.us, Google reader, Ning and Elgg (plus or minus a couple other web 2.0 sites). At it’s core, as James Roberts, Director of Institutional Programs for Xplana tells us, it’s providing a way to move the focus of education from efficiency of delivery back to the encouragement of discovery.
James Roberts of Xplana gives a talk at the VISTA 2010 conference.

Do Conversations Matter in Web 2.0?

Dr. Trent Batson, who also wrote an article on the irrelevance of paper-based instruction, has written a new article for Campus Technology–"Learning in the Webiverse: How Do You Grade a Conversation?"
Dr. Batson first introduces his article with an anecdote of a colleague of his who monitored students’ postings to Blackboard. Students who simply posted an essay on the topic at hand were given poor grades. However, students who responded to material written by other students and tried to advance a conversation by referring to other students comments were given higher grades. The highest grades were reserved for students who synthesized several comments in their own comments.
This example is used to illustrate one criterion for grading a written conversation (as opposed to an essay or an article)–using cohesion elements to connect two or more language elements together. For instance, this blog post is itself using the cohesion element of Dr. Batson’s article in Campus Technology to create some dialog. I don’t know if Dr. Batson will ever read this blog post (might want to send this to him for him to respond to), so it is indeterminate if our combined efforts will lead to further discussion of the topic of conversation evaluation.
Anyone who has followed or contributed to a conversation in blog comments elsewhere in the blogosphere will be familiar with the process of online conversations.
Another criteria mentioned by Dr. Batson is "audience awareness". Anyone who has taken a course in technical writing should be familiar with this. In this particular example, Dr. Batson suggests that students posting content to a Blackboard discussion forum should address their comments not only to their instructor, but also directly to the students they are responding to. In the hierarchy of audiences, the other students should be the primary audience for the comment poster, while the instructor serves as a secondary audience. Each audience will have different needs and expectations for using the content that is posted. The other students will, hopefully, become more engaged in the subject matter of the course. They should also learn something about their fellow students and also gain a deeper understanding of the material through thought-provoking comments posted by other students. The instructor should monitor the conversation to see that the students are comprehending the material to the satisfaction of the instructor. The instructor can also step in and post comments when the students begin to drift off-course. This can be a way for the instructor to interject himself into the conversation without intimidating the students (as might happen in a more traditional face-to-face instruction setting). Monitoring the conversation also allows the instructor to pass judgment on a student’s writing skills (grammatical and analytical).
Dr. Batson further argues that Web 2.0 technology (blogs, wikis, podcasts, instant messaging, chatrooms, etc.) is a very good tool for conversing with others, just as Web 2.0 is good for visualization, referencing, and aggregation. Furthermore, there seem to be some natural linguistic rules that seem to apply to the use of these technologies such that they are accessible to nearly any one of any age, discipline, or interest. In my own experiences around the web, this certainly seems to be the case. The explosive profusion of blogs over the past few years is phenomenal. Everyone has an opinion and they are seldom hesitant to express their opinion in a Web 2.0 format.
Although I do not have any experience "grading" an online conversation on a given topic, I do have a number of blogs I like to visit simply because the "local" community that participates in the blog often has some very thought-provoking comments (those blog commenters would get a high grade, using Dr. Batson’s standards). Other blogs have comments that often devolve into flame-wars or ad hominem attacks against other commenters (those folks would be graded much lower).

Using Facebook for Creating Study Groups

Some time ago, Campus Technology published an article about a student in Toronto who set up an online study group inside Facebook. At its peak, his group included 146 students. However, the instructor for the class didn’t approve, so punished the student (Chris Avenir) by charging him with academic misconduct.

The homework questions counted for 10 percent of the grade in the class. When an administrator discovered the group and informed the professor, Avenir received an F and was charged with academic misconduct, punishable by expulsion. An appeal filed last week was to be settled this week by the campus.
According to the Ryerson school newspaper, The EyeOpener, Avenir was singled out even though he said he never posted any answers on the discussion pages. He is quoted as saying, "What we did wasn’t any different than tutoring, than tri-mentoring, than having a library study group."

I would tend to agree with the student in this case. How is this really much different than getting a group together at the library to study? The main difference here is scalability. Because the students worked together online, more students could participate at any given time. Furthermore, students could study asynchronously, when it was convenient for them. This is definitely an area where the Net Generation has a lot of expertise because they simply grew up with this technology. They actually expect to be able to tap into these resources as a matter of course.

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