17 June 2016

Teaching Youtube to teach

I've been part of a small team helping Andrew Robinson develop a Youtube channel and videos that assist him in the teaching of shoe making in the footwear studio of the Fashion School at RMIT.

robinsons footwear channel
A screengrab of the Robinson Footwear Youtube channel

The aim is to provide video-based instructions on the use of studio tools so that more students can learn at a time and pace that better suits them. Andrew will continue to give formal instructions as well as observe class use. These videos are to augment that activity.
The few videos that are so far public on Andrew's channel are examples of our exploration of the techniques and limitations of recording with a phone and editing the footage with the Youtube editor. We're trying to get Andrew as self sufficient as possible, using readily available technology, within the time available, ideally so he can keep developing the techniques from now on, and help others in his school.
So far the work has developed two main approaches:
  1. QR codes to playlists
  2. Refining Youtube data

Andrew with the Maurser Spezial machine and a QR code that links to a Youtube playlist
Andrew with the Maurser Spezial machine
and a QR code that links to a Youtube playlist

QR codes to playlists

We're using Google's URL shortener service to generate QR codes for Youtube playlists for each machine and tool in the footwear studio. Google URL shortener is a quick way to get QR codes, and gives us a basic amount of usage data to review. The QR codes are stuck on the machine or in the work area with text alongside to indicate what the code is for, such as "How to use the Mauser". When the code is scanned with a phone a Youtube playlist loads, listing a range of instructional videos to choose from. Linking to a playlist gives us the flexibility of adding and changing videos without having to update the QR code or lose the usage statistics.

Refining Youtube data

Andrew editing the auto-generated closed captions. We've found that the use of a microphone greatly enhances the accuracy of the auto-generated captions; and that accurate captions improves the relevance and quality of content recommended by Youtube
Andrew editing the auto-generated closed captions. We've found that the use of a microphone greatly enhances the accuracy of the auto-generated captions; and that accurate captions improves the relevance and quality of content recommended by Youtube
The other part of the project has been to pay attention to the sorts of data that impacts on how the videos are displayed in Youtube. For example, we're observing how the titles, descriptions, tags and closed captions of a video or a playlist impact on the sorts of other videos that Youtube recommends and associates along side. We're finding that these recommendations are made more relevant and useful if care is taken with the meta data, especially the closed captions. Longer term we're interested to find out what happens when students subscribe and interact with staff channels. We expect such interaction will have a rapidly useful impact on the usefulness of Youtube to student's networked learning.
This approach to using Youtube to try and establish a School wide learning networke is lead by some of our thinking described in Can we teach the machine to teach, where we are keen to find out if there are things we can do - activities we can undertake, that all together improves the usefulness of Youtube to the user - both teacher and learner.


We're planning to evaluate this project through the extensive usage statistics that Youtube records, as well as trying to record and observe the impact that that usage has on the gradual establishment of a Youtube learning network in the school. This network will take some time to develop, as it will require a wider adoption of Youtube by staff and students in the school, and a relatively sophisticated use and understanding - akin to how people use and understand Facebook (viewing, subscribing, liking, commenting, creating). Our hope is that we will be able to establish an informal and formal learning network in Youtube, and start discussing and developing activities that enhance the usefulness of that network for people's research, learning and longer term professional learning.

03 June 2016

No LMS - an argument for when your institution comes to reviewing their Learning Management System

It's amazing to me, that after all this time, this argument still needs to be made. But of course it does, the struggle it falls under is ages old.

Train wreck at Montparnasse Station.

Have you ever wondered if there is an end to the list of contradictions between university rhetoric and actions? At best, I guess, they are a result of well meaning change efforts, presenting perfectly reasoned argument against a cultural institution that has a large population and political magnitude that simply can’t accommodate even the most well meaning efforts to change.

  1. One size doesn't fit all = we all must (which is implied) use the Learning Management System to teach, learn and assess
  2. Accessible, relevant and engaging learning = digitised and locked in a system that resembles nothing like the rest of the Internet, or what you might experience in life after school.
  3. Looking for efficiencies and putting an end to the silly stuff = we pay huge amounts of money to license, train in, and manage a system that locks us in by design, when perfectly good and reasonable systems and alternatives exist for far less cost and far more gain.
  4. We need to personalise learning to individual student needs = we subscribe to systems that offer little to no opportunity to achieve this, that are designed to reinforce the paradigm we'd like to change.

The list goes on, and I'm not even sure I’ve picked the best examples. Safe to say, there are many more examples just a search, or conversation with the right contrarian, away.

Best arguments for LMS

The “best” arguments I've seen for using an LMS are:

  1. When used well…
  2. When used well, they provide the sorts of data we need for internal and external auditing.
  3. When used well, they offer students a reliable, one stop, private and secure online environment for learning

When used well…

I’ll leave the questioning of what “when used well” means for the reader's imagination, but I do suggest criteria around relevance and transferability - beyond the relatively short time we offer “learning” to people we tend to class as “students” or worse, clients, customers or consumers.

Data for auditing

If arguments that wag their dog don't frustrate you, then open a conversation with someone in student services. Those poor meats in the sandwich play a big role in gathering the information needed for audits. Aside from not being familiar with the term “LMS”, the person I spoke to recently wanted to tell me how complex audits are. The Student Management System naturally plays a very big part in audits, as do systems like a Course Repository (meaning the systems that store the course and program descriptions, requirements and sometimes curriculum and assessment types and descriptions). What I’m trying to suggest is that it's highly doubtful to me that the LMS plays much of a role in auditing at all, not least because it is hardly ever used well - even after all this time and money. If you find that it does, then ask does it need to.

The one stop, reliable, private and secure

This argument generally comes from people who know and use an LMS well, because they’ve complied. I haven't met anyone who makes this argument who then says that a one stop convenient, reliable, private and secure online learning environment can’t be achieved using common every day online systems. Gaining this perspective is really just a simple exercise in removing the LMS from the equation (in thought only, if action is too radical) to begin imagining how all these elements can be achieved without it. The skills gained immediately transfer to other areas of academic work, such as community and industry engagement, and other contact groups that typically have no need for an LMS and much more need for people who expertly know and understand the Internet.

The No LMS argument is well over a decade old

But people have been making this argument for more than 12 years! (not counting the early resistance to the LMS when it was first introduced by central administrators and like minded people in the late 90s, early 2000s). The most cited article that I have written on the subject from that long ago is: Die LMS Die, You Too PLE!

Thankfully the PLE developer community seemed to listen to arguments like that and ended their attempts to bring personal learning into one system. They switched focus to articulating and demonstrating it as a concept, a framework, a keyword to counter the idea of system-managed learning. It became Personal Learning Network.

It was too late for the LMS however, having by then convinced most institutions to sink millions/billions into LMS licensing, policy and support. No escape plan was ever devised, and we keep paying the exorbitant price of that poor leadership to this day.

But if my style of argumentation puts you off, or if you think I'm merely alluding to substance without offering much directly, just do a cursory search for debates over the LMS yourself (keeping in mind that there are an awful lot of people whose only source of income and self esteem is from supporting an LMS). You should hopefully see that almost no one thinks they are a good way to teach and learn. Disregard feature comparisons between different LMS, that side track is futile and small minded. The disagreement is whether or not an LMS is necessary! Anyone in the field not entertaining that debate is just being overly pragmatic under muddleheaded leadership.

In 2009, Educause published an article that summarised the anti LMS position, and suggesting an already abundant alternative: Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network. My link to that goes via a blog post I wrote about the article - a shameless and demanding act of self aggrandisement.

The LMS is in the way

The ideal in my mind at least, and if we are to persist with our simplistic ideas and designs for how people teach and learn, is that it ought to be a seamless and richly useful experience between the stages of becoming inspired, finding a topic to learn, learning it, and if necessary demonstrating knowing it or doing it. If we can agree on that very broad ideal, then we might begin to see that the LMS (and the perspective that enables it to exist) is a massive obstacle to approximating that ideal today, or building toward it for tomorrow.

I'd just like to acknowledge at this point that there are some areas of knowledge, some ways of knowing, that are not conducive to this ideal of technically accessible and seamless learning and knowing. But I would say that these areas are an exception, and that the LMS, or even the Internet, may not be good ways to facilitate learning in these domains...

Here's a proposal for escaping the LMS. It applies at any stage, but most obviously if or when you're migrating from one LMS to another such halfway house. If you’re already outside the LMS, good for you! Keep it that way. Help others out.

More for before, or later - a time that never was

If for some reason you're interested in what I've done, written about or referenced in regards to the LMS and the Internet over the years, I primarily use the tag #InternetAsThePlatform to organise my contribution to all the wonderful noise.

01 June 2016

Staff profiles

Not a bad little video introducing how to set up a personal learning network

The ideal

When I look up a teacher or academic, a rich array of images, videos, presentations, publications, websites comes up in the search results. Top of the list is either their website or the staff profile for their primary place of work.

The reality

Most often than not, no images, no videos, no presentations, a few inaccessible publications, and no websites. Top of the list is an very empty staff profile page in the website of the place they may or may not be working.

What to do

RMIT's HR, Marketing and Academic Developers need to come to a common understanding on the above, reflecting on the fact that more than 70% of teachers and researchers are causally employed, and pool their resources to support people who are willing to generate substantial online profiles, and recognise those who already have one.


Digital Learning DSC has been working in the online identity management space for a while now, under the umbrella concept of networked learning. Some of the Schools in DSC have taken to the idea that "A Google search result is your portfolio". Some teachers are entering into discussions around the idea that by supporting students, teachers and researchers to develop rich and connected online identities, their various accounts become valuable learning networks to each other, and valuable professional networks to a range of central entities, including RMIT, its Colleges and its Schools.


So we're gradually designing learning activities that help build those substantive learning networks, to gradually have an impact on the ideal described above. Invite us in for a chat!

Can we teach the machine to teach?

Analog Computing Machine By NASA on Wikimedia Commons

When Michael Wesch published the short video The Machine is (Using) Us in 2007, he was summarising a long discussion about digitisation and hypertext, search engine algorithms and optimisation (SEO), The Singularity, The Semantic Web, Crowd Source, Open Source, Peer to Peer (P2P), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and many other ideas all within four and a half minutes.

The core question Wesch was asking was whether these machines are using us, or if they are us. Most people I talk to about this tend to focus on the idea that the machines are simply enticing us to their front end web services, so as to collect data, our media, our interactions, our interests, our responses, our location and movements.. to create powerful demographic and individualised profiles for marketing and other intelligence gathering purposes. But perhaps the machines are also offering us a reflection, using the collected data to then make recommendations and associations that can be both surprising and useful and also meaningful in a reflecting sense - showing us what they make of us.

Some people go further than Wesch's questioning, and ask if we could in fact use these machines more deliberately, if we could teach these machines to connect and teach us? Could we input data and information more consciously, to get the sorts of recommendations and associations we need? Would the machines start offering us even more unexpected and useful connections? Might our research improve, might our networks widen and grow in value? Would our knowledge and productivity exponentially increase?

Take the simple action of using a hashtag for example (or tag more generally). These people-generated metadata identifiers are a way to connect with potentially vast repositories of similar information, are information in and of themselves, and perhaps more importantly - connect to people. The potential of this was first captured to video in 2005 by Jon Udel looking at Delicious (an early and very popular social bookmarking service).

About here is where the theme folksonomy started to emerge as a serious alternative to taxonomy. Related to this was the idea that flat, non-hierarchies and comparatively anarchic ways of organising online, were proving successful.But tagging (and hypertext more broadly) is significant but simple technology in comparison to our current questions around digital identity management. And the relatively recent webservice called Pinterest offers a tangible experience of machine connections and associations. It users socially bookmarked images, text and weblinks to make its connections and recommendations, and as almost anyone who uses the service will testify, with impressive effect. Certainly the field of SEO and social media marketing have long been interested in these ideas, but are teachers, students and researchers?

When I started the Wikipedia entry for Networked Learning, I was interested in the people-to-people and people-to-content connections that the socially networked Internet was facilitating. Later, I wanted to look into the plausible history of Networked Learning and discovered a range of related ideas from as early as the industrial revolution - when railways and telegraph lines were being erected across vast distances, through to post industrial ideas in the 1970s such as Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society) and Christopher Alexander et al (A Pattern Language) - who were seminal in imagining a more dis-intermediated, post industrial arrangement for teaching, learning and education.
The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.” Ivan Illich (1971). Deschooling Society - Chapter 6
Now we have an Internet that is more socially connected, might we explore Networked Learning for ideas on how to make better connections, associations and recommendations for teaching and learning?

So the questions for me become: can we teach the machines to teach us? Are there certain activities and methods, projects and assignments, identities and roles we can use that will help us input more exacting and impact-full data so the machines will make the sorts of recommendations and associations we need to advance our access to information and people, and ultimately our knowledge and understanding? Can I use commercially orientated machines like Youtube in such a way that it will start recommending more and more useful videos, and start connecting me to more and more valuable people? Can I do the same with Facebook? Can I do the same across Google? Can it be done through Wikipedia? Can I do this differently with multiple identities? Or will marketing, mass news, propaganda and advertising prevail? Will xenophobia and surveillance disrupt and distort the potential?

I've been experimenting with these ideas for 10 years now. In 2013 I attempted to quantify some of this with a research project called Defining Networked Learning, where I analysed a trail of data from my own efforts to self learn a reasonably technical body of knowledge and skills relating to biomass heating. This work was published in 2014 through the IEEE in a paper called Identity Awareness and Re-use of Research Data in Veillance and Social Computing.

Others have done much better work, looking at human to human interactions of networked learning before the Internet. Work such as Entienne Wenger and Jean Lave's well known Communities of Practice and Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Such work was used by people in the Education sector to expand and develop ideas around Student Mobility and Life Long Learning. To my knowledge, few if any have updated these ideas with experience of a socially networked Internet and the deliberate use of it to generate connections and associations.

We're looking at this form of machine teaching and learning, in various places around the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT.

  1. We've actively challenged the University's current practice of offering Google accounts to staff and students and then suspending those accounts when a staff member or student is no longer active with RMIT.
  2. We've coined the tag "Bring your own account" working with people in ITS to discuss ideas around what it might look like if the university was to accept and use a person's preferred account (online identity) when they join, and to shape that account in the time they work with us. These sorts of ideas have big implications for things like Learning Analytics (currently focused narrowly on data gathered in an issued account within an extremely limited timescale).
  3. We advise teachers in the Schools to help students to think about the consequences of building an RMIT issued account - only to have it suspended. Implied in this advice is to encourage people to bring their own accounts and shape them instead, so what they build can go with them, after they graduate (or conversely - what they've already built comes in, and is shaped over the time they use the account with us).
Now we're looking for ways to develop, quantify and measure this approach to online learning. Our current ideas are to look at both the RMIT issued accounts as well as the own accounts brought in. We're looking for how we might quantify these accounts over time, as their users undertake activities specifically designed to teach the machines to teach - to build rich online identities so that professionally relevant recommendations and associations are being made by the 'machines' by the time a student graduates, and hopefully able to take their account/s with them.

If you're interested in working with us on these questions, or to simply join in discussions relating to them, please make contact. Leave a comment or email us directly. There's potentially exciting work to be done.