After E-learn: Small is small

November 19, 2008

A few thoughts on the first day of the E-learn conference (all I got to attend). Given my short stay in Vegas, I decided to attend the talks of the invited speakers, and this was an excellent choice. All three were really fine public speakers, and each left me with plenty of e-food for thought.

Richard Baraniuk spoke about open access educational materials, and in particular connexions, his successful “place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, books, reports, etc.” He believes education should follow the lead of music, and allow for rich user customization and personalization (creating, ripping, mixing, and burning) to engender creativity, access, and participation in learning. He made me realize how the YouTube class was my attempt to force the ethos and practices of open access education into a corporate site that easily resists and regulates our attempts. We all could use an educational video platform, and soon!

Elliot Soloway, also a fine and rambunctious speaker, while gently pitching his company dedicated to developing mobile learning environments for K-12, explained how educators have been often fooled by complex views (and uses) of technology mixed with simple views of the social situations of teaching (and living), while clearly the reverse is more apt. While he convinced me that children will be excited and playful with tiny and mobile hand-held learning devices, this continued to raise my concerns about the loss of the long-form. While he and I share the belief that learning should be fun, we also recognize the joy of investigating and experiencing in-depth, and must continue to include these possibilities in (and out) of the technologies we use, develop, and support.

Continuing the celebration of the small, Ken Carroll, founder of Chinesepod which teaches language in 10-minute chunks to lots and lots of people all over the world (based upon the “digital learning object” which actually nicely links the commitments of all three speakers), explained how “small is beautiful” in that “small gives users more control.” He’s right. And we’ll all need to decide, as we live through it, to what gains and what losses. As Carroll reiterated, “the medium is the message” and it is critical that we design each medium to maximize its best qualities while understanding its limitations. We probably won’t use mobile phones to read or write novels or feature films. But as new technologies, and the entrepreneurs, users, and educators who meet there, begin to form defacto standards (like the 2-minute YouTube video; or 7 second one, below), we may be gaining fun (and participation) while giving up the long, deep, and complex. A great loss:


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