August 2010

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I recently found another social networking server app through Twitter. As we know Ning recently changed its terms of service and is no longer offering free social networks. This sent a wave of panic throughout the educational technology community, accustomed to having “free” apps at their disposal. People immediately sought alternatives to Ning. Of course they wanted free hosted solutions in most cases in spite of having had the rug pulled out from under them. I contend that those who have not learned the lesson about relying on such solutions are doomed to repeat the same outcomes as any subsequent solution  runs in to similar problems keeping their business afloat while offering free services.

That aside, a new option I had not heard of before, wall.fm, came to my attention. I immediately went to the website and after a little digging around found that the site ran on software called Oxwall.

Oxwall seemed like a straight forward php/mySQL sort of a site, so I went through the server requirements and found that I had to add some functionality to my server. After a quick recompile of Apache, I set out to install it by uploading it, creating a database, then run the web installer. Installation seemed standard until I got to the point that it told it gave me a bit of code to paste directly into the config file (Delete the text already there–that’s not clear). No big deal, but it might put off some users. In the finale step you are invited to install some plugins.

These are the core plugins. There are a few more available on their site. Most are free, but a few cost $20. Like any new software, the offerings are lean. More on all this later.

Upon installation, one has a simple Oxwall site. An administrator has a Customize this page button which brings up a drag and drop widget management environment that allows you to move and customize each widget.

Without going into detail about each feature, the site is pretty bare bones. In the most extreme case, groups, the only functionality is a wall. To be fair, the developers say that more is coming. Other than that you have a simple blog with very basic formatting and the ability to insert an image. There is also tagging and rating. There is similar functionality in the video and link sharing areas. As it stands though, none of these plugins interact with each other. In other terms, you can’t, for example, embed a video in a blog post.

The administrative interface is attractive and has an important feature built in that Elgg’s and BuddyPress’s core installations lack: granular role and permissions control. Having started with a discussion forum as my first social server app, I have been puzzled by the lack of an ACL system in software such as Joomla, Elgg, and WordPress/BuddyPress. In Oxwall, an admin can create a role and assign any set of permissions to it. Users can then be assigned specific roles with specific permissions. This is particularly important for education sites.

One troubling omission from the basic package is a forum. A forum plugin can be purchased  for $20. I understand the developers’ need to make money, but omitting such a basic tool from the default set renders Oxwall of very little utility until someone ponies up the money.

Oxwall software is an alphabet soup of licensing. The core software is licensed under a CPAL “badgeware” license. This means that you must leave Oxwall links and labels on the site to use it unless you obtain permission to do otherwise. The paid plugins are release under a commercial Oxwall Store Commercial License (OSCL), while the free plugins are under a BSD license.

Those not wanting to install Oxwall on a server can create a free community on wall.fm sponsored by the developers. Like Ning, the developers are going to have to find a way to pay the bills. The question is–will it remain free?

Oxwall is extremely new and has been release in an immature state. It will be interesting to see if the developers foster an ecosystem that fosters a development of  plugins. Unlike other platforms, Oxwall appears to want to support developers by selling their plugins through the Oxwall Store. Indeed there are a number of features that appear to promote making money through Oxwall in the wall.fm sites by encouraging site creators to charge for site access.

Three out of nine wall.fm plugins are for monetizing wall.fm communities

While, I like what I see in the administrative interface–particularly the User/roles/permission system, I’m not sure that the commercial nature of this software will be well suited for educators on limited or non-existant resources. I certainly believe that a discussion forum is an essential part of any social network platform and should be part of the free basic installation. Charging for such an elementary feature leaves me skeptical about the direction of this project.

Is Oxwall a Ning replacement? Without a forum, the answer is a flat no. With a discussion forum–maybe, but I don’t think Ning ex-pats would be satisfied with it yet.

I’ll keep an eye on Oxwall, in spite of the commercial edge of this “open source” package. If I come to believe that it has a place in education, I may delve further into features on this blog. I’d love to hear your impressions of Oxwall and wall.fm.

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This is one of a number of posts exploring multimedia learning. I have been reading research on this topic with an eye toward improving my presentations and other multimedia instructional material. Here are earlier posts in order of creation:

In my previous post, I  outlined Clark and Lyons’ categorization of the communication roles of graphics in their book Graphics for Learning:

This graphic activates prior knowledge for those who read the earlier blog post.

Decorative graphics are to be avoided as they don’t support learning and can actually decrease performance. The explanatory graphics help learners construct mental models. All graphics should be aligned with learning objectives.

The authors continue their discussion of graphics by examining their psychological roles in facilitating learning:

  • Support Attention
  • Activate of Build Prior Knowledge
  • Minimize Cognitive Load
  • Build Mental Models
  • Support Learning Transfer
  • Support Motivation

Support Attention

Graphics that support attention help the learner help focus on what is important. The authors draw upon parallels in text: bold, italics, colors, headings, bullets, etc. as examples of effective in directing attention. Such cues, in text or graphics, are particularly effective when the material is more complex. Their suggestions come down to two of Mayer’s principles:

  • Signaling: “People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of essential material are added.”
  • Contiguity: “Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.”

There are many ways to support users using signaling in graphics including placement on the page, color, contrast, and graphic elements such as circles or arrows.

This graphic signals important content in three ways: It dims extraneous content, enlarges the relevant material and uses a red circle to highlight a specific element.

Contiguity makes it easier for learners to focus on important material because it puts text close to the graphic:

The top triangle graphic applies the principle of contiguity

Call outs are another example of applying contiguity to a graphic.

This image demonstrates use of callouts that apply the contiguity principle (Credit NASA)

Finally the authors re-emphasize the importance of eliminating decorative graphics and advise caution with animations.

Activate or Build Prior Knowledge

People learn better if they can relate new content to their existing knowledge. Learning outcomes are improved when we activate prior knowledge. Those without significant prior knowledge can benefit from building background knowledge that applies to the content to be learned.

One way to activate or build prior knowledge is to provide an advanced organizer for the lesson. An advanced organizer gives the learner an overview of what they will be learning making it easier to integrate the details that follow.

The first graphic in this blog post activates prior knowledge for those who read my previous blogpost by reviewing the communication role of graphics–information that appears again in this posts and is related to the new content. A lesson that develops the ideas of a food web or trophic levels (i.e. primary and secondary consumers) would benefit learners by activating their prior knowledge about food chains.

This graphic activates knowledge about food chains before learning more complex food webs.

Comparative advanced organizers are recommended for individuals without significant prior knowledge about a topic.

This graphic of a narrowing in a pipe is used to help understand an electronic resistor.

They caution that one should implement graphics that activate appropriate prior knowledge and to avoid graphics that activate the wrong or irrelevant prior knowledge.

Minimize Cognitive Load

Cognitive load can be reduced in many cases by simply using graphics in place or in addition to text. For instance a photograph of installing RAM is probably has a lighter cognitive load than a verbal description.

Credit: Flickr user lymang

A line diagram could further reduce the cognitive load by excluding extraneous visual content. A line drawing is simpler than an actual photograph; hence, reducing cognitive load.

Credit lire.net

Build Mental Models

Graphics that help learners build mental models brings us back to the beginning of this post and to the material of my previous discussion about the communicative role of graphics. Explanatory graphics, organizational, relational, transformational, and interpretive, better support building mental models than decorative, representative, and mnemonic graphics.

Graphic organizers like that found at the beginning of this post are found to be more effective in promoting learning than text, even when the text uses signaling such as bold and italics. It has also been demonstrated to be more effective than outlines. Tables and matrices can also  serve as organizational graphics.

Charts and graphs function as relational graphics. The text discusses different kinds of charts and graphs and when each is most effective. That will be the subject of another post in the future.

One interesting point made by the text about transformational graphics. those that show changes over time or space, is that static depictions teach as well as animated ones.

Support Learning Transfer

The author discuss two kinds of transfer: near and far. Ability to preform simple tasks that are done the same way each time are termed near transfer. Those that require the learner to adapt to a unique situation each time to succeed at a task are called far transfer.

Near transfer would apply to simple and routine tasks such as launching a word processor and saving the file. In this case realistic representative graphics are important. In the case of software, a screen capture would serve well. The graphic below depicting changing copyright settings on a Flickr pages is a representative  graphic It also reduces cognitive load by signaling while still providing context which is also valuable in near term transfer.

This graphic illustrates how to find open licensed material using Google's search. In the advance search click Date, usage rights,…

Far transfer success requires building mental models which are best created by explanatory graphics. These graphics can facilitate understanding by making abstract ideas more concrete such as a number line.

They can show a process with a transformational graphic:

Transformational graphic (Credit http://science-capt.wikispaces.com/ )

Far transfer is also supported by giving a number of examples in different contexts applying the same skill. Someone wanting to demonstrate the design concept of contrast could provide examples of contrast in color, size, typography, etc.

Support motivation

Motivation varies with learners. Clark and Lyons counsel avoiding graphics that use emotional interest to motivate. They recommend adding cognitive interest by using familiar and easy to understand materials. Graphics that depict relevance is also important. No matter what one’s personal interest materials that are coherent, familiar, and easy to grasp are motivating to all learners.

Conclusions

Again, having learned more about how graphics can better support learning, I have a more critical eye regarding graphics in presentations. As a side product, I have also learned more about learning research in general.

Part of the problem becomes how to create some of these graphics. The explanatory graphics are complex and do not often lend themselves to simple photographs. Clearly, to create quality learning graphics requires the proper tools and techniques. I plan to explore this area in the near future.

It is time to re-examine my presentations and improve them with more effective use of graphics. More importantly, I am increasing my focus on how all all elements–graphics, text, audio, video, etc. support learning objectives. Clark and Lyons go further in exploring effective ways to plan for the use of graphics in learning.

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As I grapple with research trying to improve my instructional presentations, I have learned about Richard Mayer’s assertion that people learn better with words and graphics than just words alone. As a result, I have been investigating information about the role of graphics in learning. One natural extension of the reading that I have done thus far is Graphics for Learning by Clark and Lyons. Ruth Colvin Clark co-authored e-Learning with Richard Mayer.

The authors cite evidence that lessons with graphics that were appealing, yet did not support the learning objectives, hurt performance on tests. Graphics should be included with an eye to the instructional goal. In Graphics for Learning, the authors classify graphics by their communication functions:

  • Decorative
  • Representational
  • Mnemonic
  • Organizational
  • Relational
  • Transformational
  • Interpretive

Decorative graphics are, at best, tangentially related to the learning goals. At worst they have no relation. They may be added for aesthetic reasons or they may be intended to be humorous or motivating. The authors refer to decorative graphics as eye-candy and research shows that they can actually interfere with learning.

Eye candy does nothing to promote learning

Representative graphics are realistic depictions of something related to the learning objectives. Examples given by Clark and Lyons include screen captures or images of equipment.

Representative graphic of Ferdinand and Isabella

Mnemonic images can be used to help learners remember information. The authors regard these as powerful tools.

This depiction of a race car helps learning Morse Code for "R"

The next four types of graphics are referred to as explanatory graphics. They help learners construct mental models. They show relationships more effectively than words alone.

Organizational graphics show qualitative relations between content in a lesson. These would include most mind maps, organizational charts, tree diagrams, etc.

Organizational Graphic

Relational graphics illustrate quantitative relations between variables. Examples of relational graphics include line graphs, bar graphs, pie charts etc. Any graphic output from a spreadsheet program would be relational.

This graphic shows the relationship between 3 variables

Transformational graphics are used to show changes over time or space. These could include flow charts, step by step procedures, timelines, or animated graphics depicting changes. Arrows are a common characteristic in transformational graphics.

Illustration of process of photosynthesis (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

Interpretive Graphics show more abstract constructs such as a theory. They can also include cause and effect models.

Graphic illustrating impact of constant speed of light in Einstein's Theory of Relativity: If speed of light is constant, then time must slow down for the person on cart (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

Now that I have learned these distinctions among graphics, I examine those in my presentations and multimedia in a different way. It is not so important that we sort our graphics into neat categories, but it this serves as a way to think about our use of graphics. Clearly, the decorative graphics are best minimized. While representative graphics support learning, they do not help learners construct mental models as effectively as the four explanatory types.

In Multimedia Learning by Richard Mayer, the author surveyed the function of graphics in math and science texts and found that the overwhelming majority were either decorative or representational. Only a small percentage were explanatory.

We need to examine our work and consider the communication goal our graphics fulfill. I know that I need to find a way to integrate more explanatory graphics. These are more difficult to create than finding a CC licensed image and labeling it. I also wonder if some of the representational graphics that I use truly support my learning objectives. For example, does it matter what Ferdinand and Isabella looked like?

Clark and Lyons go further in exploring research regarding graphics for learning. They also explore the psychological function of graphics. This helps determine how to make our graphics more effective in meeting learning objectives. I plan to explore more of their ideas in future posts. Meanwhile, if you consider their ideas valuable, consider reading more work of their work:

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Jim Groom just got me fired up again. Groom, in conjunction with Brian Lamb, wrote an important article in Educause entitled Never Mind the Edupunks; or, The Great Web 2.0 Swindle. The article laments the corporatization of  Web 2.0 in education.  The authors acknowledge the appeal and power of free online services offered by Google and their ilk.

Without much effort, online teachers and learners can quickly assemble dynamic, networked personal learning environments simply by adopting the most popular tools in any particular domain. Having signed up for a Gmail account, a user can publish websites with Blogger, manage groups and mailing lists with Google Groups, videoconference with Google Talk, write collaboratively with Google Docs, track topics with Google Alerts, manage syndicated feeds with Google Reader, share video with YouTube, post images with Picassa, and do whatever it is that Google Wave is supposed to do.

They go further with the proposition:

It seems almost unfair to expect ed techs to compete with the awe-inspiring innovation of corporate Web 2.0. Indeed, in an era of economic austerity and the apparently futile race to meet the ever-changing needs of users, it is arguably inefficient and even irresponsible to spend resources providing inferior analogues.

They continue by making the case for eschewing the appealing free proprietary Web 2.0 tools in education citing a number of concerns.

The first concern is privacy. They cite Facebook’s “bait and switch tactics with users’ data.” They also mention the powerful data mining that Google employs every time we use one of their “free” services. I have always questioned whether we, particularly in the K12 domain, have the right to deliver our students, their content, and their data to these corporations.

Another obvious concern is advertising. They cite Steve Greenberg:

You are not Facebook’s customer. You are the product that they sell to their real customers—advertisers. Forget this at your peril.

Ultimately Facebook and Google are out to serve their real customers, not you. These free services will only continue if they meet the needs of the advertisers. If not, they may cease to exist or, in the case of Ning, cease to be free. Further, the presence of advertisers in student online experience is becoming yet more ubiquitous as we herd our them into free corporate services. We are teaching our students that this is the way it is on the Internet–just like TV.

Finally, they fear that cooperation between providers of free services and “cultural industries” will lead to corporate censorship. They cite several instances where YouTube by default has taken the side of the entertainment industry in taking down published content containing copyrighted materials even though they were within the domain of “fair use.”

They don’t make a blanket condemnation of the use of these services and they admit that use these services themselves. I must add that to decide to use these services for ourselves is not problematic as long as we understand the ramifications (which are almost always obscured). Again, to blithely hoist use of these services upon students is at best questionable. Groom and Lamb challenge Educational IT to “aspire to a vital mission: to being something more than consumers and cheerleaders for commercial products.” I fear that many in the educational technology area have indeed become unwitting shills for these services. How could Google get better advertising than it does in the #edtech and #edchat areas of Twitter?

Searching the footnotes in the article led me to another gem, Miguel Brieva’s poster in support of network neutrality.

This poster is hosted by the website Internet no será otra TV. There are larger copies of the poster that are easier to read, but only in Spanish.

The poster illustrates two humorous visions of the future of the Internet. The top depicts the Internet if corporate interests prevail in the battle over network neutrality. The bottom is a vision of an open Internet. Ultimately it may be something in between. In which direction would the widespread adoption  of free commercial online tools by education take us?

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