Friday, August 26, 2005

More on EdNA Groups Vs the Open Network


Picture by Kanko'

Earlier this month I posted about the Education Network Australia's use of Moodle to facilitate group discussion. I reckoned that the use of Moodle and forums with an option to be closed in particular were/are in fact stunting the growth of the education network in Australia, keeping it introverted, network illiterate, and disconnected from the broader more global discourse.

Stephen Downes backed me up, extracting the key points out of my windy rave by quoting,
Its better if we use more global and reliable services I think... EdNA Moodle groups is diluting the impact that individuals could be having on the global conversation. Its keeping many in Australian education disengaged from the world beyond EdNA... The valuable time of teachers and educationalists would be better spent engaged with the open Network, learning the popular tools and understanding the nature of the Internet so that they may teach people how to learn in an open Network.
And Marty Cielens joined with support for the idea of open dialogue etc, and along with other anonymous comments made the point that its not necessarily the tool (in this case Moodle) that is the problem, but more the policy, practices and perspectives of people using it.

Just this week Mark Tranthim-Fryer, Assistant Manager of EdNA Services posted a response to my post, to which I'd like to keep an open discussion going here. Firstly I think Mark deserves credit for responding to my rave and not choosing to ignore it as most organisations probably would - orgs afraid of the attention, the unpredictable nature of public conversation with unknowns like me, and of course the drag on resources it take to read and respond to these posts. So thanks Mark.


Picture by Kanko'

At first read Mark's response strikes me as a little defensive (understandably), but informative non the less (Though it could do with a few links). Mark gives background of EdNA groups and an account of its current uses. He then extends into talk about EdNA's view of Moodle having interface limitations, and mentioned that this will be looked at more closely by EdNA in the future... Does this suggest that EdNA will be funding further development of Moodle, or looking towards another system? I hope its the first.

But in all, I think it is the rationale behind EdNA groups that Mark listed for us that is of interest.

Following is the rationale for the preferred approach, which seeks to provide a service for both public and restricted community spaces:
  • Extensive consultation with all sectors of the Australian education and training community has strongly endorsed the provision of both open and closed online community spaces
  • Group owners make the decision about the appropriateness of whether their Group is public or private – EdNA stakeholders have considered this pluralism to be a strength of the service
  • The EdNA project does not support and is not funded to provide collaborative tools for use by students, the general public and international communities except under specific criteria
  • Educators have emphatically endorsed the service in its current form – usage has quadrupled in six months from the former EdNA collaborative services it replaced


Picture by Kanko'

On point 1: I must have missed the extensive consultation somewhere, as I don't recall and don't think I know anyone who was included in that consultation - not to say that it didn't happen, but is to say that perhaps it wasn't open and therefore extensive enough. I think we do have the technology to be able to manage very open public consultation processes.

On point 2: While I appreciate that there are many who prefer 'private' online forum, and while I do think most of these preferences are unnecessary and stem from poorly understood fear and loathing of the Internet. There are just as easy and therefore more valuable ways to achieve these privacy settings using the popular tools. For example, I might simply keep this post as a draft and not publish it but give access to my friends at least... or other more innovative ways such as using a Gmail account with group access for file storage and private serving to restricted blogs and wikis for example... (A strategy dawned apon by a colleague Jude Cooke, with more thorough explination in a future post I think).

On point 3: Why is EdNA not funded to support students? I don't think it would cost much more at all to offer storage for 'student' activity. Where is the clear distinction between teacher/trainers and students anyway, should there even be one? I'm not sure if I even qualify for EdNA... being a consultant who is employed only occasionally by education and training organisations, and a learner in many ways, perhaps I'm just general public? Again where is the distinction and need there even be one?

On point 4: If educators have emphatically endorsed the service in its current form, then I am one who does not. It is a curious thing about the usage stats. How might we compare the popularity of EdNA groups with the more informal channels like blogs, eGroups and wikis? But focusing on EdNA Group's apparent popularity - It could be any number of things such as the fame of Moodle lately and EdNA providing a chance for people to get in and try this new LMS, not to mention the fact that the close of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework Community Forums has no doubt left quite a few people high and dry and in need of some measure of connectivity that is comfortably close enough to the format of the AFLF Community forums. And then there's the inevitable if somewhat slow uptake of ICTs in Australian Education that might be simply a matter of good timing for EdNA groups. No doubt EdNA groups are popular, but that is precisely the problem. See my original point in quote above.


Picture by Kanko'

While it may appear to some that I'm arguing for arguments sake alone here (I am after all a self declared SmackDown learner). I think this issue goes to the heart of a more serious educational matter. That being a school and teacher's constant struggle to be relevant, engaging, and accessible to learners. EdNA groups uses a tool that replicates the real (Internet) world, declaring that it insulates its users from 'the noise'. That 'noise' as Mark calls it is actually quite audible information once an adequate network literacy is obtained by the listener. I don't think EdNA groups is helping its users to obtain that adequate and essentially independent network literacy. In my view it is much like an old school, struggling to be relevant, engaging and accessible to learners.

Some of my original points and questions remain unresolved in the initial stages of this exchange, such as:
  • what guarantee can EdNA realistically make that the groups will be available in 2, 5, 10, 50, 100 years?
  • Will they alwayreceiveve the funding and political advocacy they need to keep themselves up to date with technological changes in order to remain connected to global perspectives?
  • Will they be able to keep their replicated communication channels open
  • even in times of financial and political hardship?
  • Or could they go the same way as AFLF Communities, or even just simply lose relevancy as users inevitably gain a more independent network literacy?

Picture by Zemoko

In spite of how it may sound here, I do see great value in EdNA groups in this present day and age. I am engaged in quite a few of the available groups and am part of some interesting and valuable exchanges. But all the while I wish that it all could be going on out in the open network, where there is a greater chance of meeting experts, getting broader more global perspectives, and all together better intergrated (by default) with emerging technologies and the global conversation... if it were, its users would be using tools that intrinsically practice and engage with communication techniques and technology that are more relevantnt, accessible and popular beyond the classroom of today, and into the classless room of tomorrow.

EdNA stands to play an important role in this open and network literate approach. Improving its RSS feeds would be a good start, setting up more opportunities for face to face conferences, training educationalists in open network literacy rather than in the use of Moodle or what ever CMS it is using on the day... helping groups to be independent with their use of ICTs, being an essential aggregator of this dispersed and decentralised network... just some half baked suggestions that could do with some teasing out, and intended to turn this post into more constructive criticism..

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12 comments:

Miles Berry said...

I must say I've been quite impressed by the way EdNA have leveraged Moodle's functionality to provide spaces for discussion and collaboration between institutions, although I am disappointed that so many of the groups are closed access, so fare comment Leigh.
In regard to the sustainability angle, as this is open source technology, I don't think there's anything to stop a group's organizers from taking a backup of the 'course' and restoring it in their own Moodle installation if the funding runs out. Of course, there's no guarantee that Moodle will be here in 100 years time, but I don't think that should stop us making use of it for the time being.

Leigh Blackall said...

Hey Miles, thanks for the comment.
That's a good point about Moodle being open source therefore being more sustainable than proprietry systems not using open standards... but the requirement of users to make their own back ups and then having to install their own Moodle in order to bring their content back to life if EdNA should end or simply change tact, is not good enough in my opinion.
EdNA should be making arrangements with an archive service of some sort. More than one actually. The National Library and the Internet Archive perhaps... just to ensure that the data is not lost at least, but even better, that the data is reusable.

Martin Dougiamas said...

Forums being "closed" is a site administrator issue - Moodle already has settings to allow it to be wide open to the public. We also have a lot of RSS support, allowing "internal" content to streamed elsewhere. (See moodle.org for examples of all this)

Moodle itself is always evolving, and new modules like Blogs are coming soon (this will allow site users to publish to the wider web in a more personal way).

If you or anyone else knows of any credible standards regarding long-term archiving of forums and other data produced from collaborative activity then by all means let us (the Moodle developers) know about them, or better still join in with us to make it a reality! We are currently not aware of any such standards.

Our proprietary Moodle backup format is XML-based, so it can be transformed into anything else later should it need to be.

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Martin,

Yep I am subscribed to a few RSS feeds from EdNA groups. It's a good way of getting the content 'out there' but doesn't solve the acess issues as far as anyone contributing... but hey! It is an admin issue...

I suppose that if the XML can be pushed out via RSS, then that could be captured on any page store at the Internet Archive for example...?

rose grozdanic said...

I haven’t weighed into this debate before because whatever I say may be interpreted as something other than what it is, given that I was the project manager of the old Australian Flexible Learning Community which disappeared under such mysterious circumstances. I’ve also recently been engaged in an extended period of total self-indulgence and didn’t feel like interrupting my (successful) pursuit of rude good health.

But I’m now sufficiently motivated (and rested) to join the fray though I am hoping I am able to do so in a way that doesn’t put too many noses out of joint (including yours, Leigh, given that I hold you in high regard both professionally and personally) or threatening my chances of working on another Framework project in the future. Yet, as another “SmackDown learner”, I’m bound to upset someone, so please accept my apologies now.

Firstly I don’t think it fair to blame EdNA for offering groups the opportunity to be private. If you want to take up the issue, take it up with groups who choose to be private, and frankly, if I had a group that was private and someone insisted that I open it “to the world” I’d tell them to go take a running leap. Isn’t the whole point of user centred design and flexibility that one doesn’t prescribe or force people to do things in ways that we think are “better” for them? Until we respect this basic idea, we’re not even on the same page. Saying that these “preferences are unnecessary and stem from poorly understood fear and loathing of the Internet” is neither here nor there. The internet’s a steaming cauldron of garbage. And the most amazing place on Earth. No wonder people are confused. I sure as hell am and I’m in there every single day. You’re entitled to your opinion, you may even be correct in your observation but you do not have the right to impose your preferences on the entire Australian educational workforce.

That you then provide various ideas on how the groups (who you would force to become public) could keep things private (eg using multi-user Gmail accounts for file storage, use of restricted blogs and wikis) fills this smackdown learner with absolute glee! Surely anyone reading that would think “why not just use a private group?” I did!

And this, I think is the crux of the public/private issue. The old Community supported 37 (unfunded) private groups and links to these only appeared to people who were subscribed to the group. And no-one ever complained. Not even the venerable Mr Downes. (Hello Stephen - trust you to be upsetting our antipodean sensibilities again! :-)). So to me the solution is really simple – don’t annoy people by providing links to things that aren’t available (such as private groups).

Secondly, consultations are always tricky and one is damned either way. For what it’s worth, I remember that EdNA did promote these consultations very widely in all the usual media such as ANTA Fast Facts, EdNA newsletters, the Framework newsletter, State and Territory TAFE systems and so on. We even promoted them in the Community General Forum. So I guess this just highlights three issues for me which are
1) a reminder that people like consultants and part-timers (especially in an era of increasingly casualised industries like VET) can fall through the cracks and the importance of identifying strategies to address this not only in information distribution but all sorts of processes and practices (such as a review of eligibility for LearnScope individual project funding for a start…).
2) that it’s really easy, when you’re in “the loop” to not notice that people are falling through the cracks because everyone you know is also in the loop. My memory is that the consultations were fairly comprehensive. Leigh’s experience shows me that lots of people weren’t aware of the opportunity.
3) I’m reminded of the word “propinquity”. The definition doesn’t matter; what matters is that you may not have encountered the word before but I bet you’ll start seeing it used from time to time now that I’ve drawn your attention to it. It’s the same with the EdNA stuff – at the time of the consultations it’s possible that you may have had the opportunity but it just didn’t register it on your radar because you were engaged in something else.

Thirdly, I can’t see the merit in criticizing EdNA for not operating outside its mandate by providing services to “students” for “student activity” in a world where everyone gets to be a (publicly funded) digerati 24/7 for the next 100 years. Even if the idealised permanence and cornucopia of resources were achieveable in some way, the suggestion that it’s EdNA’s role to cater to this demand is almost the logical equivalent of blaming the various ambulance services for not serving the needs of patients waiting for elective surgery because ambulances are “health care providers” and the people on lists need health care. You’re not analyzing the broader picture (in terms of the Australian VET context and organisational structures) and this is where I think there’s some potential in terms of working out where to start looking for answers and further dialogue.

EdNA groups is funded as part of a project called “Knowledge Sharing Services” within the broader Australian Flexible Learning Framework initiative which is funded to the tune of $15 million dollars or so a year to design and implement a range of strategies that will progress Australian VET towards becoming a recognized world leader in all things elearning. And I believe that much of the Framework’s achievements since 2000 have been genuinely useful, fruitful and on target. You’ll be aware of several of these projects within the 2000 - 2004 Framework such as LearnScope, Toolboxes, New Practices and so on. The Framework’s 2005 business plan listing all goals, strategies, projects and so on can be found at http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/aboutus/resources/Business_Plan_2005_final_website_050210.pdf.

If you examine that document you’ll find that it’s not up to EdNA groups to “[help] its users to obtain that adequate and essentially independent network literacy.” You’ll find that the Networks project, which replaced the Community and the Networking conferences, is funded to achieve that. And also LearnScope, through its funded work based learning projects. And, to an extent, lots of others in the 2005 plan. And if you understand this, the landscape starts to shift.

So this is where I say – fourthly - that most of your questions are more appropriately directed at the Flexible Learning Advisory Group, most of whom are new to the Framework in 2005 and probably genuinely interested in input, feedback and suggestions from practitioners within the VET sector. Or to the various individual project managers, or the Program Managers in each of the clusters. I’d say they’re all currently engaged in planning for 2006, if previous years are anything to go by, so it’s not a bad time to let them know your views. (And by this I don’t just mean you Leigh – it’s important that as many people in VET-land as possible contribute to the dialog and future directions of those sorts of initiatives).

One of the reasons there’s no “fifthly” here is because I’m not even sure it’s a word. I’m also conscious that this is getting really long. So I will bid you adieu and thank you for providing a platform for this discussion even if I didn't agree with everything you said.

I hope that this turns into a fruitful exploration of the issues you've raised and that people find the time and motivation to contribute their own perspectives. Even if they're not "smackdowns" like us. :-)

Cheers

Rose

Leigh Blackall said...

Yikes Rose, I'm feeling like I just took an elbow to the throat from the top ropes!! Just wait a moment while I try to recover, searching around for the team wrestler to tag... augh! no where to be seen...

"...but you do not have the right to impose your preferences on the entire Australian educational workforce."

I wonder where publicly funded educational practitioners sit in this... should they be open because they are paid by the public?

I'm not trying to force anyone to be open. Why would I want to 'force' anyone? I'm more trying to raise the issue (to do with accesibility) so that perhaps more people will consider being opened for the various benefits to do with networked learning, connectivism and the global 'conversation' I guess... as well as the more important point about network literacy...

Thanks for suggesting who should be receiving these developing points of view, I hope they go in their direction somehow... (select>copy>paste>print>fold>envelope>stamp>post no doubt)

My neck is still crushed, I think I'm gunna slip under the ropes and see if anyone else wants to have a go...

rose grozdanic said...

Oh dear - Leigh, are you serious?! I didn't mean to garrotte you! I don't know whether to laugh or "do a Dobby" and slap myself in the head! Gosh!!

I'm not saying any more 'cos I don't trust myself not to be mischievous. (It seems one can the learner out of the smackdown, but not the smackdown out of the learner...)

Please accept my reiterated best wishes and high regard

:-)

Leigh Blackall said...

An interesting post along similar lines by Alan Levine

Leigh Blackall said...

quite an interesting discussion going on in the Moodle forums about the intergration of blogs within Moodle. (Don't mind the login screen when you click the link, it lets you in as a 'guest'...)

mic said...

yeah Leigh i think you've made a valid point, but i agree with Rose here - some people like to have private conversations - not everyone wants to be a broadcaster. It's okay for folks like you and Stephen who have the confidence to make twice-daily broad sweeping statements in a public multi-logue, to put your neck out so others might garotte you :)

.. but many people are still distressed by the whole tech thing, and find it hard enough to make a 'public' statement in front of ten peers in a closed environment.

i like edna groups - i'd prefer moodle on our own server, but it's a great opportunity and a step forward from corporate mis-management systems.

good on you for stirring the pigeons tho', michael

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Michael, and a totally valid point of course. I guess I'm speaking more to the many people I know who are quite capable, have plenty of good stuff to say, great resources and the like, but are sadly using a closed group.

But the main thing here for me is the absolute urgency in getting digital/network literacy up in the education sector in this country.

A literacy relevant to the real world, not in a small sector in a small country.

Interesting that noone has continued the issue of content storage and what effort and guarantee is there that EdNA will still have and provide the content in years to come...

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