i_know_what_your_thinking_my_place_or_yours_trucker_hat-r9abb24b533e84a698403547206a527f2_v9whj_8byvr_324I much enjoyed the sessions at the second Canada Moodlemoot last week in my home town of Edmonton. Many of the sessions and all the keynotes (including my own) were distributed (often 60-70 remote participants, over 300 F2F) and recorded using Elluminate. Slides from 34 of the presentations are accessible on Slideshare with the tag Canadamoot.

Throughout the sessions issues relating to ownership, persistence, the ever expanding functionality of multi-tool LMS environments and the value of utilizing (in formal education) the host of evolving web 2.0 apps, were raised. All of these issues are exacerbated when we follow Martin Wheeler’s maxim to “make the formal informal and the informal formal” or perhaps we should just try to maintain the separate distinction of both as argued by Jennifer Maddrell?

I wanted to reflect in this post about the tension that arises when choosing the best facilities to host the interaction and learner contributions that define web 2.0 type education. There seems to be 3 major contenders for the honor of hosting and both pros and cons for each alternative. These are:

  1. Hosting Behind the Garden Wall – hosting behind the password protection of the institution –
  2. Hosting in the Front Yard – hosting by the institution, but allowing access, visibility and comments from outside the institutional community.
  3. Hosting on the Commons, or in Someone Else’s Yard – hosting by external commercial or non profit hosts.

1. Hosting Behind the Garden Wall. This is the current state of the vast majority of both online and campus based models of learning provided by formal educational institutions. The model fits well with institutional practice and culture as it extends online existing practices -courses take place behind the protected doors of campus based classrooms.  Institutions are used to being able to control who enters these classrooms, the time and nature of the activity that takes place within them and generally there is little contention as, quite clearly, the space belongs to the institution – trespassers can legally and quite easily be locked out. Recently institutions have been trying to facilitate increased access behind the wall for registered learners by creating single sign-ons and portal technologies allowing access and importation from services beyond the course, including library and institutional record access. In addition there is an ever growing number of tools built into modern LMS systems. Registrars use passwords to allow or deny access to courses, the resulting interactions and to restrict access to licensed learning materials. Institutional control also insures that services can be maintained and that changes in versions, services and resources are controlled by the institution – thus minimizing surprises and possible disruptions and maximizing control over the online environment within which education processes occur. The closed wall also protects the garden by use from unauthorized spammers and unregistered students (heaven forbid that those without prerequisites or course fees, be able to peer in). Finally the wall provides a safe space – long a requirement for open scholarly debate by faculty and for the development of the skills and “half-baked ideas” that students may be reluctant to share with the general public.

However at least two problems arise from this model. The first relates to ownership and persistence. Assuming that learners retain copyright on the works  that they contribute to the course (the default condition for any creative works), then it is hardly responsible behaviour for the institution to restrain or restrict access to or to destroy these works at the end of the class. Students may also want ongoing access to this work – perhaps for a formal e-portfolio development or for whatever purposes they choose to use their work. A second problem arises when public access and commentary related to  the work is essential for pedagogical efficacy. Two instances come to mind, the first is the capacity to invite guests to participate in the course. At many institutions this was an easy process prior to the LMS era (one opened the classroom door, or the teacher allowed access to the coures web site. Now, as often as not, registrar control over a single sign-on systems, makes giving guests access problematic, since the guest may or may not need access to a host of auxiliary services, some of which may not be licensed for non registered users. The second and more pedagogically challenging issue is that some educational artifacts rely on access and comment from external audiences to gain authenticity and value. Creating blogs with out access to external audiences and external comment, negates a great deal of their educational value. In addition wikis and other web 2.0 often have their pedagogical value greatly  enhanced by contribution beyond the course to other students at the institution and more importantly to other general and targeted audiences. More generally, almost all social software gains functionality and value as the number of users increases – restricting access only to registered students often reduces the value of the educational transaction.

Hosting in the Front Yard

An institution may license, create it own proprietary,  or use an open source application on its own servers to provide access to both registered and unregistered students and perhaps the general public- including search engines. Moreover, some tools (notably elgg) allow individual to set the read and the comment permissions individually on  the profile data, blogs, presentations, tagged resources and teaching and learning content, thus allowing individual users to determine the access to their content. Institutional hosting also can insure the integrity and persistence of the data produced, since this information is stored on servers owned by the institution –  thus eliminating the fear that student or faculty work will just disappear. Secondly, allowing individuals to control access and privacy insures that these are set to match the wishes of that individual. For some exposure to the wide world and related search engines is a terrifying thought, for others it is essential for building and maintaining a positive net presence. Finally, since the application is hosted by the institution, there are no advertisements or promotional links -except those added by the institution.

Disadvantages include the challenge of either allowing a single sign-one that may restrict guests, or forcing students to maintain two sets of passwords- one for secure institutional sites and the other for more user controlled ‘front lawn’ access.  Hopefully a day of Open ID will insure a solution to this “every location demands a different authentication”, which seems to define the day. Front lawn solutions also challenge system administrators who like to see applications as either within or outside of password protection- not ones that are half in and half out and carrying potential for infiltration and risk of unauthorized access. We have had unpleasant experiences with spammers creating offensive links and presence on at least two sites (IRRODL Journal and Canadian Institute for distance Education Research) that we operate on Athabasca University’s front lawn. A final disadvantage comes from the cost of technical support and hosting for applications that MAY work as well on someone else’s front lawn as on our own, without incurring institutional costs.

Hosting on the Commons, or in Someone Else’s Yard

Some of the most interesting sessions at Moodlemoot demonstrated linking of moodle sites to externally hosted resources (see for example the interesting links from a Moodle course created by University of Victoria staff at http://moodle.uvic.ca/course/view.php?id=1324). The gotoweb20.net site currently lists nearly 3000 web 2.0 applications, many of which can be harnessed for teaching and learning. No institution is able to match the innovation spurred on by web 2.0 developers eagerly trying to create the next killer web app. Thus, mixing and matching applications from learning innovators across the web insures maximizing innovation at low cost. The out sourcing of the development and hosting to others can be cost effective. However, eventually even web 2.0 apps have to generate money, so at some time the service will either include ads, charge fees, invent some new revenue stream, or go broke. – not scenarios that inspire construction of long term course offerings. Another advantage of external hosts is that students may already be familiar with and using these systems. For example, Facebook now hosts 26 different Athabasca University groups (most of which are not very active). This reminds me of bank robber Willie Sutton’s response to why he robs banks “I rob banks because that’s where the money is.” There has also been argument that students view these non-institutional sites as “their space” and don’t appreciate institutional interventions. However,  I don’t leave such suggestions uncontested, just as I retain the right to walk into a “student’ pub on campus.

Many of the business plans for these web 2.0 innovations are based upon selling out  (sooner or later) to a larger firm, and as we have seen even purchase by a secure company like Google or Microsoft, in no way guarantees that the application will survive or be included in other offerings from the purchasing company. Some institutions have legal or moral obligations to keep copies of student work that is used for assessment. This is an important issue as most assigned work in higher education must  be assessed or at least credited in some ways if it is to be taken seriously by many instrumental and time challenged  learners. In addition hosting of private information on servers outside of the country or that can be viewed by external agents such as the USA Department of Homeland Security, may violate learner privacy rights.

Summary. Despite the attractions of security (behind the wall solutions) and cost effectiveness (on someone elses’s yard), I conclude that there is no one best solution from the three I discuss above. Perhaps only dancing among the compleixty and simultaeously  hosting all three solutions in every fromal education program creates the necessary blend of security, innovation and public presence that defines quality education in networked era.