22 April 2010

Aggregating blogs (feeds) into Moodle

The Teaching and Learning Centre here at the University of Canberra, facilitated a valuable introduction in the form of David Jones, working with Central Queensland University on a feed aggregation and marking tool for Moodle called BIM, and researching academic staff development for improved teaching practices.

David gave a presentation on the current features and future directions of BIM. Without a doubt, this add on to Moodle will greatly assist teachers trying to use blogs with large cohorts of students, and trying to fit that teaching and learning practice in to existing paradigms of assessment and administration through Moodle.

Essentially, the current version aggregates feeds submitted by students or added by teachers, and automatically matches a post to an assignment based on same words used in their titles. The BIM makes a copy of the student's blog post, lists it in a schedule for marking - along with other information such as who hasn't posted on the assignment yet, for the assessor to go through and add feedback and marks within the Moodle structure.

Future development plans for David (and anyone who wishes to collaborate with him on this Moodle development) is for aggegated feed display features that will help to encourage interation between students. Things like tag clouds, snippets, and links to active discussions might be developed - helping Moodle to match some of the features of its possible rival in Wordpress Multi User... depending on future development add-ons being developed by Wordpress' educational user base.

I asked the obvious question of why, or if BIM might consider developing outside the framework of Moodle say, as a Firefox based or other Feed Reader plug in, and offering a file that can be imported to Moodle (as well as a spreadsheet, a MediaWiki table, a Wikispaces Table, MySQL database, a text document and a PDF to email), and thereby offering the functionality of BIM to a wider user base than just Moodle. David explained that the project was constrained in many ways to the needs of the sponsoring Institution, and that triggered an interesting (I thought) discussion about such institutional constraints and their apparent impact on more lateral, some might say, socially engaged and relevant development projects not to mention impact on defining teacher practices and academic development and support.

Defense comments regarding Moodle go usually along the lines of "this is not a do everything tool, but one in an array of tools.." yet so many of our development and support efforts don't seem to reflect that stance. Take an already very useful Moodle add-on like BIM, and rethink the constraints on its development. How could we achieve the functionality we need for Moodle, but in such a way that compliments an array of other ways of doing things, and possibly leads us into that more lateral development and practitioner culture, engaged with wider more socially engaged (as apposed to educational institution engaged) projects like Mozilla, MediaWiki and Google...?

David, if/when you read this, it was great to meet you and I'll be following your research work with interest. Could you record a screencast on the feature of BIM and load it to Youtube?.. I did a quick search and couldn't find anything, and I'm sure a number of people will be very keen to gat an inside look. I did find your Slideshare though.


Mike Bogle said...

Thanks for the info here Leigh, I've been following David's work on BIM and blog aggregation for a while now. I keep trying to get some traction on this here but haven't made much progress so far. People are still unaware of blogs themselves in many cases - let alone the need to aggregate them.

Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. We'll get there eventually.

In the meantime it's great to see how other people are working with social media. It's quite refreshing.

davidtjones said...

G'day Leigh,

Thanks for the comments, will follow up on some of these a little later, maybe in a blog of my own. Your suggestions have me pondering.

In terms of screencasts, there are a couple already available on vimeo, and another half completed.

The two vimeo videos are

They were intended for staff already planning to use BIM who needed to know how to drive it. They were done quickly.

All that means they may not be a great introduction for someone new, but it's a start.


Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks David, I've embedded the first one in my post. Look forward to you response.

Peter said...

Looking through some of your blog comments, Leigh, I can see that you are very savvy with innovative trends and developments in e-learning and UC is certainly fortunate to have you on deck.

Interesting in your write-up of the 'Aggregating blogs (feeds) into Moodle' session which I also attended, that you use the expression "Defense comments regarding Moodle go usually along the lines of "this is not a do everything tool, but one in an array of tools.." The implication is that some sort of behemoth is being defended.

In the subsequent discussion around David's presentation, you expressed a certain concern, indeed almost an impatience transitioning to chagrin, about UC e-learning practice being left behind on the internet highway.

The quandary that many early adopters face, when confronted with sometimes luddite practice, is how best to operate as a change-agent to enhance practice in technology adoption to improve learning and teaching.

In another part of this blog site you have written: "The LMS and all that it represents (commodification, control, power, bureaucracy, compliance, exclusivity and restriction, dislocation, dysfunction, irrelevance, status quo, cohort learning, quizzes, tracking, escapism, conformity, risk aversion, and extreme conservatism) has become a central and costly feature to most institutions of academic and vocational education and training. In my experience, it is also the single biggest barrier to people grasping the grammar of communications today, and realising the possibilities discussed in this network".

If I was designing a multiple-choice question on this sentence, which seems to be all the rage these days because of convenience, work-load, blah, blah, blah it could be flippantly written:

This statement about the LMS:

a) represents the views of talented early-adopters who recognize quality e-learning, often because they spend more time online than in the classroom
b) would be endorsed by Habermaus and Michael Moore because of the wonderful terminology and negativity
c) would be rejected by most academics who are absurdly grateful just to obtain anything that works and minimises pain
d) is in accord with deeply held internet nutters' beliefs

The central question though for an educational developer is how to promote innovation and change and it seems to me that it has to be based on an invitational ethos: teaching staff need be convinced of the benefits of technology adoption, they sometimes come to it slowly, they come to it in surprisingly unexpected ways at times and positive things happen.
For those of us who work in staff development, the invitational ethos for me goes back to Aesop’s fable about the sun and the wind: it’s how we let the sunshine in.

Leigh Blackall said...

Hi Peter, thanks for this thoughtful comment.

I loved your multi-guess question. Clearly the answer is all-of-the-above, but that answer is not an option in you quiz.. interesting.

I had to look up Aesop’s fable. I have a problem with the moral and the premise.

Premise: The question of whether the wind was even possibly stronger than the sun is strange, of course it is not, and we know that the sun determines the wind.

I realise that is besides the point, but bare with me..

The moral: that kindness is better than force, (in the fable). We know that the sunshine can be just as oppressive if not more so than the wind.

And this is where it connects with the belief in being invitational in educational development - within a large institution. Being invitational has its aggressive, coercive side, not to mention its futility in the presence of other power forces in the institution and its culture.

Specifically speaking, an academic - whose work load and feedback loops are determined to such a degree that experimentation and risk taking are not really possible... evidenced in the case of social media, by the disproportionate illiteracy in academia.

The presence of truly luddite comments from attendees in this session on BIM come as no surprise in the academic context, yet (I think) it is a very serious issue that needs urgent and thoughtful action.

We in academia are squandering the greatest opportunity mankind has ever had with regards to knowledge sharing, teaching and learning. Our fees are going through the roof, our quality is static if not regressing, and our relevance to societies and the economy should not need pointing out.

The Learning Management System (and most of the other technology that is prescribed and supported) reinforces the institutionalised paradigm of learning, entrenches itself through employment contracts, and is playing a key role in maintaining academia's trajectory towards further irrelevance and disconnection.

I don't believe a passive approach can be effective when considering our dense hierarchies, performance reviews, infrastructure, broken feedback systems, conservatism and the wrong sorts of incentives and rewards.

To borrow your highway metaphor, a bypass is needed, one that goes around that old town, and offers a more direct route for the people in need of credentials with minimal debt. Remember, the experiences in the old town have become irrelevant. An old road can remain for those who like nostalgic tourist routes, but an alternative route is needed.

In otherwords, perhaps educational change at the scale of institution is not possible through teaching staff, but possible through other channels. Alternative assessment processes, marketing to new 'student profiles', research and study popularisation initiatives.

My focus is increasingly on projects that enable rather than disempower new practices, ones that take advantage of the greater opportunities we have here and now, and sees us doing so in a timely manor - not decades after the fact.

And so, with BIM - take the constraints of the institutions brief (develop an extension for Moodle), but approach it in a very lateral way. Develop a tool that satisfies the institution's small minded constraints, but that compliments alternative routes. If we don't take this approach, we are simply complicit in reinforcing existing paradigms, aiding the too-slow modes of educational development, and squandering the opportunity we have had now for more than 20 years, but sadly have done very little with to date!

Someone (in a network) writing better than me on this: Be online or be irrelevant

Peter said...

When you refer to “dense hierarchies, performance reviews, infrastructure, broken feedback systems, conservatism and the wrong sorts of incentives and rewards” I recognise the realities in universities to which you refer but that takes us into another terrain.

I would prefer to remain with the essential professional dilemma: When as an educational developer, you propose an e-learning agenda that you see as positive, significant, reformist, even visionary, and it is met with an indifferent response, with apathy or even contempt, then how do you respond?

It is quite natural to point out the inadequacies of the environment: “academia's trajectory towards further irrelevance and disconnection”. One might even inject some alarmism: we’ve missed the internet shuttle and Armageddon is in the next cloud tag!

My own experience with academics has led me to understand that there are many valid reasons for diverse responses to e-learning agendas.

In 2007, David Kember and Carmel McNaught, two distinguished professors well acquainted with educational technologies that enhance learning, identified ten key principles of effective teaching, mentioning among other things, the importance of understanding fundamental concepts, challenging students misconceptions, promoting critical thinking, teamwork , authentic tasks in assessment and substantial curriculum design etc.

What is common with such studies is that learning management systems are rarely mentioned and your view that they “reinforce the institutionalized paradigm of learning” is a commonly held myth. While it is often the case that they do, there is no logical reason why any LMS can’t be configured to reflect an incredible diversity of learning and teaching models and depart from the dominant transmission/delivery system. The eureka moment is to recognize that it is not the external e-platform, it’s the mental models that teachers hold of learning and teaching in their heads, that is the key, coupled with some skills in using it to introduce interactive dimensions and exploit the affordances offered by educational and communication technologies.

An analogy might be a play with action on stage: it’s the interactions in the script rather than the platform that’s of the essence. I hope to be seeing King Lear this week and I’d like to know what sort of brain chemistry in Shakespeare’s head produced such a profound work. You may be dismayed at this crude analogy of the internet to a stage platform and it is true even in the theatre, that there is a complex, intimate relationship between stagecraft, the actors, the interactions on stage and the response of the audience. So too is it the case with the LMS, if you accept this rather fanciful thinking!

Leigh Blackall said...

Another great comment Peter, thanks for taking the time to write this.

When you say: and it is met with an indifferent response, with apathy or even contempt, then how do you respond?

But earlier you said I recognise the realities in universities to which you refer but that takes us into another terrain.

My response to apathy is to try and see and change that terrain - the architectures of control that cause that apathy and indifference.

When an academic says they worry about intellectual property, I lobby for a change in the IP policies. When they say they don't have time, I interpret that as a matter of their priorities, and lobby for change that incentivises and rewards a change in behavior. When the IT infrastructure puts barriers up, or encourages certain behaviors over others, then I lobby for a change on that front as well. So the topic you'd rather not discuss is actually quite central to what my response would be.


Leigh Blackall said...

Alarmist... am I alarmist..? yes, I think I am. Armageddon? No, we simply miss a profound opportunity.

I searched for David Kember and Carmel McNaught and found mostly books, but not much else. I found Carmel at the CUHK and on Facebook.. and David at Liverpool Hope University... just.

This poor online presence highlights my point about academia and missed opportunities. If their work reveals so little through a simple Google search of all things, and they are not in full ownership of their online identities, are these authors perhaps irrelevant already? Are their ideas, messages, and levels of engagement available only in the libraries and journals of a diminished class of people? Its not to say their work is poor quality, its a question of relevance. Right now, their work is irrelevant to our conversation... Further, the things you list as the things they identified as key principles, aren't they all givens by now?

But your point is that people like them don't identify the LMS as problematic (of course they don't), and you go on to assert that a belief otherwise is a commonly held myth. I don't think you can say its a common belief, given that almost every institution invests in an LMS of some sort, and that UC itself proclaims 80% of its staff using theirs, and it remains to be seen if the belief is a myth.

The eureka moment is indeed the mental models of teachers (and tertiary learners I might add), we certainly agree there, but we are debating whether or not the architectures of control (and the LMS is a part of that architecture) prevent new mental models developing. The LMS maintains the teacher/student power dynamic, it preferences the contributions of group over an other, and it mindlessly limits access when the technology enables access at no extra cost.

I don't know for sure how much technology determines peoples behavior in this case, (I aim to find out) but I'm convinced that it has an impact we don't fully comprehend - nor it seems, attempt to understand.

I have been referring to marketing and anthropology literature for this question, in the absence of anything remotely critical or holistic in the education literature. Probably the most accessible and obvious reference in this regard must be Michael Wesch, starting with his The Machine is Using Us, further to his Anthropological Introduction to Youtube (both links are videos). His work leads to even better writers throughout history: Illich, Bourdieu, Foucault, Mcluhan, Chomsky even. Classics that are absent from educational discourse.. why is that?

And finally, your analogy with the stage is perfect. Given that teaching is an act of performance on so many levels. I used this very same analogy back in 2005, with the post Early Film, Early Internet, Early Days, Network Learning. I wrote that for this very same argument - our over familiarity with one stage prevents us adapting to a new stage.

Peter said...

This is the first time I have posted to a personal blog {i.e. your blog, Leigh} although I do from time to time post in response to newspaper sites on issues around politics. I can see that you have a strong commitment to an online presence but as you probably recognize – and others who might read this – it is neither my natural nor preferred mode of communication.

The only point I would make in response to your comment about David Kember and Carmel McNaught – “If their work reveals so little through a simple Google search of all things” – is why not try Google Scholar and see what you come up with.

In my opinion these two people, through their research, publications, teaching, presentations at conferences and scholarly pursuits have a significant impact on the thinking of many people and they are representative of many other academics. And that is the nature of teaching, research and scholarly pursuits within universities: it ripples out, especially through their students and through their scholarship, in quiet, unobtrusive ways into much broader society. Your description of this audience as a “diminished class of people” illustrates the points I have been making through our blog exchanges.

I have appreciated the opportunity to come online and discuss with you some issues around e-learning and I am sure, since we are both colleagues at UC, that there will be other opportunities and other forums in which to discuss these and other matters.

Leigh Blackall said...

A really thoughtful response from David Jones - Developer of BIM.

Keith Lyons said...

unI am so sorry I missed David's presentation and am a late comer to this great exchange. I have been away for some time and should have been more proactive online.

On my way home from Europe this weekend I tried to stay awake by watching films I would not see any other way. I ended up watching (amongst others) Where the Wild Things Are, The Blindside and Crazy Heart. Each of these has a link with the exchange of comments here.

For my part I am very happy with an invitational approach to the public internet. Each of us can make an informed choice about our presence and how we represent our work and thoughts. Where the Wild Things Are is a great story about imagination, The Blindside is a wonderful affirmation of the possibilities created by kindness, and Crazy Heart is a powerful allegory (for me) about destructive genius.

So ... I do think it is possible to be an advocate for change ... this advocacy can be passionate and informed by remarkable insights ... we can help others to find their way in a different practice that has a fundamental libertarian commitment ... but it is their choice.

What you do is remarkable, Leigh. You have helped me find a way in a shared space that otherwise would have been closed to me. I am profoundly aware that I have chosen this path and that this has led me to the private troubles/public issues domain so beloved by sociologists.

We need the imagination to go where the wild things are to help us reaffirm the possibilities of kindness. I cannot escape the invitational calling I feel now. I do recognise and accept that institutional life will travel at a different speed and that our real hope is to develop communities of practice emerge that can be the spotting dimension of the institution's transformation (http://www.slideshare.net/Postillion/spotting-2443078 http://www.slideshare.net/Postillion/a-fourth-age-of-sports-institutes)

Thank you, Leigh, for stimulating such thoughts.

Keith Lyons said...

Oops ... please excuse the typing in my comment ... some strange text. Hope it still makes sense!