Category Archives: curriculum

Preparing more people for a diverse future

The TED Talks lecture series is a wonderful intellectual and cultural resource. I’ve been a fan for years and on this long weekend relished the opportunity to catch up on some I’ve had in my queue. One of my favorites is by Ken Robinson, because it highlights both a goal and a challenge of my research.

First, the challenge:

I have an interest in education — actually, what I find is everybody has an interest in education. Don’t you? I find this very interesting. If you’re at a dinner party, and you say you work in education — actually, you’re not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education. (Laughter) You’re not asked. And you’re never asked back, curiously. That’s strange to me. But if you are, and you say to somebody, you know, they say, “What do you do?”and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They’re like, “Oh my God,” you know, “Why me? My one night out all week.” (Laughter)

Education, to many, is a very dry topic. That’s because, for many, the practice of education is very dry. If you ask a space alien what education is for, he posits, they’ll say it’s training to be a university professor. That’s the pinnacle of the process, right? But it takes much more than university professors to make the world go round, of course. How can our system of education support the diversity of needs and foster the diversity of talents of a rich and dynamic society? That’s the goal.

I ask “how” not “if” because I don’t see it as a choice. Globalization, mechanization, intelligent machines… these demand that we develop human resources, fostering the gifts of each person however they may manifest. Motivated by the example of Gillian Lynne (starting 2:30 in the talk), Robinson argues that we increase the amount of education in the arts, even specifically teaching dance to everyone. Such sentiments underestimate the constraints on time, money and attention for and of students. I would imagine Robinson is not a fan of intelligent tutoring systems, how they involve sitting at a desk and developing, most often, a laser focused set of skills.

But I think research in intelligent tutoring systems and other computer supported learning can help address the diversity he speaks of and even help students learn to dance, if that’s something a community values. Firstly, they can help increase the efficiency with which “maths” (he’s British) and other “left brain” skills are learned, leaving more time for other enrichment.  Secondly, and this is a goal of my research, computers can help personalize instruction to each student’s needs and interests. The computer can devote its unblinking attention to the individual, drawing on a wealth of data about their prior interactions with the system, and that of other learners like them, to deliver an effective and engaging learning experience. Technology isn’t the answer, but it is part of the best solution.

Thanks for reading. I encourage you to watch the whole talk as it has many more gems than I’ve noted here, and several laugh out loud moments.

Introducing QCommons: Chemistry

After a long summer of programming and design, the first output of the QCommons research project is ready for the world.  I will blog more about QCommons in general, but today I’d like to tell you about QCommons: Chemistry, made in partnership with the Chemistry Education Digital Library.

In a nutshell, QCommons is a platform for assessment resources that promotes sharing and collaborative improvement.  It is open source and designed to support many different topic domains.  To track developments with QCommons please fill out the subscription form currently on the front page of the site.

QCommons: Chemistry is the first site built on the platform.  In developing sharing sites, there is a bootstrapping issue: people are unlikely to contribute to a site that doesn’t already offer something.  This makes starting out tough, but once it gets rolling the network effects help it grow faster and faster.  (Wikipedia being a prime example.)  Fortunately, the ChemEd DL and the Journal of Chemical Education have donated hundreds and hundreds of quality assessment items to get the ball rolling.  Anyone can come and browse through the items for ones useful in their formative or summative assessments.  All the items are from the JCE QBank and are used in General Chemistry courses at major universities. These were previously available only to vetted teachers, but now the questions (without the answers) are available to everyone.  (At this point, to see the answers you will still need to prove you are a teacher.  I welcome feedback on how to improve this.)

This is just the beginning.  There are many topic areas, new features and usability improvements to come.  In the spirit of Google’s long “beta” cycle, I’m releasing the site as it is to let people start using it and give feedback. It is ready to use and relatively bug free.  As I add new features I intend to keep it that way.  Just bear in mind that it’s a work in progress and any suggestions you have could strongly influence how it develops.

So again, all comments, criticisms and suggestions are welcome.  You can post them here on this blog or in the forums on the site.

Choosing a wiki for collaborative curriculum design

Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy is a groundbreaking new sci-tech magnet school opening in 2009. Among other innovative methods, they are keen on working with education and technology researchers to the latest research into their design and practice. They are designing a new school and integrated 4-year curriculum from the ground up, and as part of the CMU‘s PIER program I have had the opportunity to see the challenges and opportunities this affords. As an HCI researcher in collaboration technologies to support education, I have been particularly interested in how they can best support collaboration among teachers and administrators as they carefully design their curriculum to kick off in classrooms next Fall.

This morning I spoke with Stephen Pellathy, the Curriculum Coordinator for science, who has made some visits to my curriculum design course this semester to discuss their process. When he started, the curriculum was a Word document that got e-mailed around. Aware that wikis were much more supportive of collaboration, he set up a Google Sites wiki to hold the curriculum so that he and the teachers could easily write and revise it together.

He picked Google Sites initially because it was convenient and he knew it already, but he had been hearing of other options and wanted to decide on a long term platform soon before the content grew to a size that would be formidable to transfer. Through the conversation we hit upon these concerns:

  • Will the storage be enough after years of growth? Can it host video?
  • How time consuming is accounts management?
  • How hard is moving the content to another wiki if another becomes more appropriate?
  • How hard is it to integrate other documents like budget spreadsheets?
  • Can it differentiate between teacher and student access? On a per-page level?

There are comparisons of wikis for education on the web. (e.g. 1). Most take a focus on wikis for student learning. Here the concerns are on the teaching side. A big site for wiki-based curriculum is Curriki, but that is for open content, and hopes to facilitate collaboration on a large scale. That challenge is great and some believe it won’t work. I should write more on that at a future date, but right now I’ll restrict the focus to teachers and administrators collaborating within a school to develop a new curriculum. Basically, a recounting of key points from our conversation.

Google Sites
Currently they’re using Google Sites off a Gmail account. I think this gives 100MB storage. If they want to stick with Google Sites, they could set up a domain with Google Apps and get 10GB for shared storage. A private Google Video service is included, but will soon cost $10/user/year. Account management isn’t too difficult since there is a batch account manager. With the Premier level they offer single-sign-on.
Google Sites integrates pretty nicely with Google Docs, allowing you to embed spreadsheets.
One drawback is on portability. There’s no way to transfer your Google Site to another service or even download it as an archive. Another key drawback is it has only role-based and no page-level access controls. That means that to let someone edit any page on a site lets them edit every page on that site.

Another option he had heard of was MediaWiki, the software that runs Wikipedia. For most educational contexts this isn’t an option since it requires a server to host it, but in this case the person who suggested it also offered to host it. A key feature of MediaWiki is that it is open source, but that doesn’t matter much here in practice because no one has the skillset to be editing the code. It does mean that it has more community investment and there are many more tools to support it, such as plugins. But again, these require a level of technical skill that may be available.
One pretty advanced feature within the wiki software is its template system. This is used extensively in Wikipedia, such as for the info boxes on the right hand column of a page. These could be useful in curriculum design to maintain uniformity across documents. On the other hand, they could force constraints that may be stifling. Maybe it’s better to achieve uniformity through cultural norms and let people break out of them when they see fit.
While hosting MediaWiki yourself is a cost, it’s also a benefit to portability since you hold all the data. You can easily move it to another MediaWiki server and perhaps even other wikis if you find a conversion tool.

I suggested he consider a third option, PBwiki. I made a PBwiki when their service was just starting up and I’ve seen it grow into a really powerful and easy to use platform. The release of Google Sites gave them some hard competition, but their new 2.0 release seems to have made them stronger for it.
The key advantage of PBwiki for this school is page-level access controls. For example, teachers or administrators can draft a document with a smaller group before releasing it to view by students. MediaWiki has this but Google Sites doesn’t. This requires the Academic Silver package ($100/year).
Another key advantage is single-sign-on. They already have an authentication system for their current web site. This way a user only has to log in once and can go between the current web site and the new wiki. I don’t know whether MediaWiki offers this. Google Apps does but in my cursory research it looks a little wonky. This requires this Academic Platinum package ($1k/year). That’s pricy, but it’s within the budget and could pay for itself in time saved. The Platinum level also includes 5GB storage. Less than Google’s 10GB, but more than enough for curriculum documents. Hosting video would eat into that quickly, but that can easily be uploaded elsewhere and embedded on PBwiki pages. Same for spreadsheets, etc.
My favorite advantage of PBwiki is the ability to download your whole wiki as a ZIP archive. This mixes the hosting advantage of Google Sites with the “it’s your data” advantage of MediaWiki.

This is not by any means an exhaustive comparison of these three wiki platforms. I just wanted to write down and share the concerns and light research that came out of this phone call. They will probably decide on a platform within the next week. Please comment if you are interested in hearing more about their ultimate decision and the factors in it.