Archive for November, 2009

Future of learning: LMS or SNS?

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Google and Facebook are very different companies. Google has its roots in content – their explicit aim is to organize the worlds information. Facebook, in contrast, is socially driven with the aim of helping “you connect and share with the people in your life”.

The distinction between these two approaches is important for educators to consider, as we face a similar dichotomy in how we approach teaching and learning with technology. Google’s early models viewed information as an entity of inherent worth. As a result, Google made accessing information its top priority, simplifying the disaster of Yahoo search.

But then, in early 2000, something happened: the web became a two-way medium, partly fulfilling Berners-Lee original vision of a read-write web. Google, dominant in the information/data organization space, missed this shift. Sure, they played around with social networking tools (Orkut), but somehow managed to mess up Jaiku, Dodgeball, and JotSpot.

In contrast, Facebook – in error or through brilliant anticipation – based its online model on social connections and information sharing based on those connections. This reality was most apparent for me in 2007 when I started receiving friend requests from family members and friends – people who had shown little interest in the social aspect of the web until that time. Google looked at the web and saw information to organize. Facebook looked at the same web and saw people who needed to be connected.

Facebook’s model is the one that will be successful in the long run.

Google now recognizes this, as reflected in their rapid shift to a social focus of their services: Friend Connect, Latitude, and Social Search. I could add Orkut to the list, but they haven’t made much impact in most countries. Where Google now provides content, it does so through social and contextual means, connecting friends through shared search interests or locations. Friend Connect offers an array of tools for people looking to form and foster connections with others. I’ve been a bit reluctant to use this service extensively because Google has a habit of killing off experiments (Notebook) that aren’t successful.

All is not fun and games in the land of Facebook either. FB is skilled at idiocy, evidenced by Beacon and similar boundary-pushing initiatives that seem to treat people only as entities in need of connection, not as entities with contextual connection interests. Nor am I very comfortable with their privacy contract. Who can trust an organization that can turn this nonsense into a pleasant sounding service?:

Facebook may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service through the operation of the service (e.g., photo tags) in order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalized experience.

Really? You’ll do that for me? Aw, thanks Facebook. You are more awesome than awesome itself. Google has launched several positive initiatives recently that are helping to restore my trust – Data Liberation and Google Dashboard. Facebook still functions on the assumption that if we are able to connect with others in innovative ways, we’ll accept, even welcome, privacy intrusion.

The second flaw in Facebook is its centralized, closed structure. Data goes in. Not much comes out. Facebook is a central gathering place that is positioning itself as an alternative infrastructure to the web. Chant with me: “All I need is Facebook. Everything else to too distracting and confusing”. In order to compete, Google has opted for a strategy of openness – open protocols, partnerships (Android), and the like. That has hardly put a dent in Facebook’s growth, currently with over 400 million users. Convenience trumps openness (remember the assent of Microsoft?).

As Google continues to morph into a more open and distributed version of Facebook, educators should pause and focus on insights that can be gleaned from the FB/Google experience. There are several of significant importance for the development and future of online learning.

First: Most organizations currently use a learning management system (LMS) such as Moodle or Desire2Learn. These systems are content-centric. Their objective is to organize and manage content, just as Google did in early 2000. Because higher education is particularly enamored with content, an LMS is a critical service. It’s completely the wrong model, however, and this will become increasingly apparent in the next several years.

To survive, LMS vendors will need to transform their offerings on the social network model of Facebook. ELGG is an excellent alternative to an LMS, but most organizations are not yet willing to accept a network-centric tool as an alternative to Moodle (disclaimer or bragging – you choose: I was on ELGG’s initial advisory board that never fully materialized, and used the software for several pilot programs in 2005 with Red River College and with Duke Corporate Education). ELGG is a better model of what learning will/should look like than any of the current contenders in the space. And yes, for you open-source lovers of Drupal and Wordpress, I include those software tools in the “not as good as” category.

Second: The wild card in education today is abundance. We simply have too much information and we can’t make sense of it all. It changes too quickly. Many universities rely on a “design today, use for three years” course design model. It worked great in 1950. 2009 – not so much. Greater adaptivity of content is required. Learning resources should be tagged with a “best before date” so we’re not teaching information that is no longer accurate. LMS’ perpetuate the course model. And that is their greatest flaw.

Third: Complexity is quickly becoming a type of conceptual language that all members of society should be fluent in. When something is complicated, every piece has a place and a right answer exists. Our education model reflects this view – get the experts together, let them tell us what the answers are, then design curriculum to reflect those answers. It’s all knowable. Complexity, on the other hand, recognizes that numerous interacting elements will form and reform to produce patterns that we can’t anticipate in advance. Complicated=jigsaw puzzle. Complexity=weather.

Fourth: Managing abundance and complexity requires a different view of teaching and learning than currently forms the foundation of education. The content-centric view reflected by LMS’ must be replaced with more adaptive network models. Instead of experts and designers serving as the key sensemaking and wayfinding agents in curriculum, social networks and their ability for context-sensitivity must play a greater role.

If Google and Facebook serve as an example, some degree of transition will be required for both LMS and social networking services (SNS). While Google has adopted greater networking features in the last few years, Facebook has also increased its focus on content (images, videos, etc.). At this stage, however, LMS’ will need to make a far greater transition for long term educational relevance than an SNS like ELGG.